On her last sabbatical, Fran Grace went into the woods. In a remote cabin in a southeastern Oregon forest, with no electricity, Internet or phone, the University of Redlands religious studies chair sat down and began to meditate. When she returned to the California campus in fall 2004, she changed her class offerings -- shifting from courses like “Religion and Hate” to contemplative-based classes in meditation, healing and compassion.
“It brought forth a commitment in me to see how do we integrate these kinds of contemplative moments in a learning environment for students, where they can drop down to a deeper level, a calmer level,” says Grace. “It seems so obvious to me that a calmer mind is a more focused mind and a more focused mind is a better learning mind. But we don’t really ever talk about that.”
Grace, who offers two-credit meditation courses at Redlands, spearheaded an effort this summer to transform a standard classroom into a meditation classroom – a yellow-painted space with zafus and zabutons (cushions and mats) instead of desks and chairs. “I walk in the room and I sort of feel uplifted,” says Brianna Wetteland, a sophomore who is taking Grace's meditation class this fall. “There really aren’t words for it," she says of meditation. "It’s just the experience of it, just the way I feel toward people. I have this newfound appreciation for everyone and everything in my life.”
The University of Redlands’ meditation classroom is somewhat unique in that it was specifically designed to be an academic space – it’s housed not within the chaplain’s or student affairs office, but instead in the department of religious studies. Yet, grounded by research showing the physiological, mental and cognitive benefits of meditation, colleges all across the country are adding spaces specifically designed for meditation, each with a unique institutional signature.
There’s of course Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, where the academic program is built around transcendental meditation and consciousness-based education and up to 2,000 students, staff, faculty and townspeople meditate at two giant golden-domed structures. And there’s Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired (but nonsectarian) institution in Boulder, which boasts three meditation rooms, two reflecting the Buddhist educational heritage and one meant to be ecumenical. Here at Naropa, students begin and end virtually every class with a ceremonial bow that sets the class time aside, President Thomas B. Coburn explains, and expresses an intention "to be fully focused on us and our topics of conversation.”
But beyond colleges with specialized missions in this regard, colleges of all types are creating meditative spaces. The University of Idaho’s University Commons, constructed in 2000, has a meditation room that faces north with a view of wheat fields against mountains, a university spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail. Others wrote in to describe an outdoor labyrinth at Richland College in Dallas, where a memorial brick walkway honoring deceased staff members runs alongside the gravel path -- about a half-mile in length into the center and back -- and also a 30-foot-wide circle labyrinth that students at Green Mountain College, in Vermont, built of slate in the spring of 2006.
Students at Warren Wilson College, in North Carolina, built a stone meditation hut around the turn of this century. Although it is kind of cave-like – dark and cold -- so a study room turned meditation and tea room transformed this fall adjoins the suites where members of a Buddhist-themed student organization live, says Hun Lye, a professor of religious studies at Warren Wilson. Also in North Carolina, Rev. Tim Auman, the chaplain for Wake Forest University, describes plans to finish renovations on a small inter-faith meditation room – “neutral space” -- in the university center by February 1. It will be the second meditation room on campus: The first is clearly Christian in nature, reflecting Wake Forest's Baptist heritage.
“Even though the meditation room we’re building is small, it has very symbolic value for us as a university, in that we say to our community we recognize that there is a large amount of religious diversity on our campus,” Auman says. “And we have that whole other group of college students who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. They have their own particular needs in terms of places where they want to reflect.”
Indeed, it seems the majority of college students consider themselves to be spiritual in some way. A 2005 study by University of California at Los Angeles researchers found that 80 percent of freshmen have an interest in spirituality – but while they expect guidance from their colleges on spiritual matters, those expectations often aren't met. In an earlier pilot study of college juniors, the researchers found that nearly two-thirds said their professors don’t encourage discussion of spiritual or religious matters.
“It’s quite counter-cultural to university life. I think for that very reason students find it a very important counterbalance to being too excessively intellectual," says the Rev. Laurence Freeman, a Benedictine monk and director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Freeman directs the John Main Center for Meditation and Inter-Religious Dialogue at Georgetown University, which he founded in fall 2005.
Georgetown's John Main Center got a new home this fall in a building "right smack in the middle of campus" – in Georgetown’s oldest building in fact, built in 1792, same as the White House, Father Freeman says. The center hosts two meditation sessions per day, and while it was developed in the Christian tradition, the meditation practiced there relies on the repetition of a single word interiorly, a universal practice. Groups of students also access the space for special sessions: “Last night actually the girls’ rugby team came in.”
On the physical education front, Craig Rand, chair of Monroe Community College’s health and physical education department in Rochester, N.Y. had a 36-foot-wide Chartres labyrinth painted on the dance studio floor this summer (at a cost of about $6,000) as part of an overall wellness program. Used in classes and open to everyone on Friday afternoons – and every day during the upcoming finals period – Rand is completing a doctoral dissertation on the physiological effects of walking a labyrinth, measuring meditators' blood pressure and heart rates, and also swabbing mouths to gauge levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, before and after walking. “We have students working 50 hours a week going to class and they’re single parents," Rand says.
“Their stress levels are a little high."