The world can be overwhelming sometimes. Deadlines and homework and papers surround us and that can make us lose track of our own self-care. The answer to all of these external forces lies with internal exploration through contemplative practices. This doesn’t just mean meditation and yoga. The broader sense of this method can be dance and journalism, to name a few. And the goal is not simply stress relief but also creating an introspective identity that allows a greater foundation to live with.
As part of All College Days 2016, the workshop “Using Contemplative Practices to Navigate Life at Vassar” was conducted on Tuesday, Feb. 23 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the Jade Parlor. Covering ways students could strive for a more balanced and connected life, Assistant Director of Vassar’s Counseling Service Wayne Assing and Senior Analyst of Prospect Development and Research Sharon Parkinson taught participants about walking meditation and other self-care methods.
Contemplative practices are exercises and methods that focus on concentration and the development of one’s identity internally. By being mindful and introspective, someone who follows these practices can strive for a wholesome life with a strong foundation. To help show this, Parkinson and Assing used some of the techniques they’ve encountered in their exploration of contemplative practices in aiding students, staff, administrators and faculty find their inner self.
Elaborating on how the internal strength that contemplative practices builds can benefit oneself, Parkinson said, “Allowing external circumstances to take precedence may mean that you’ll rarely get around to taking care of yourself. Potential stressors and difficulties continue to show up in our daily experiences in the form of interpersonal interactions and personal or social issues, which is why ongoing contemplative practice is so necessary for helping us handle whatever arises.”
Within the workshop, Parkinson and Assing briefly explained what contemplative practices are and gave some examples like walking meditation and journaling. Parkinson has experience with various styles of hatha yoga and Tibetan Buddhist meditation, while Assing has studied mind-body visualization and qigong and tai chi yoga, explored ways people could gain natural balance in their lives, such as connecting to nature.
One of the highlights of the lecture was an elucidation of the Tree of Contemplative Practices, which shows different ways that people can learn to find their personal questions of the ways of the world. Contemplative practices aren’t just meditation and silent prayer but can be singing or participating in marches. As long as the basis is about communion and connection with a goal of awareness, it can be considered one of these practices. Simply standing outside in nature can be considered a contemplative practice.
Explaining how contemplative practices’ heightened sense of awareness can strengthen interpersonal relationships, Parkinson said, “I recently read there was a study that concluded that adults are not fully aware of what they are doing 47 percent of the time. This percentage could be more or less, but unconscious behavior is sure to have an affect on physical states and on the qualities of relationships. By becoming more conscious we can transform ourselves and enhance the quality of our relationships.”
This campus-wide festival, which occurred from Feb. 22 to the 24 and allows the Vassar community an opportunity to come together and reflect. In addition to this lecture, there were also events covering diversity and building safer classrooms and a stronger community, to name a few. All College Days started out in 2001 after a racial incident the year before brought the necessity for community-wide discussions.
Associate Dean of Campus Life and Diversity and Chair of the Campus Life Research Group Ed Pittman ’82 explained this communal reflection’s purpose: “All College Days is only as good as the campus makes it. We believe our goal is that of creating and helping others to build inclusive spaces that invite people into them for dialogue. Everyone should take ownership of how our campus is experienced—and there are plenty of people already doing hard and incredible work on a daily basis. All College Days hopefully adds to that process and bring more voices into the work.”
“The top two reasons that most people give for not taking better care of themselves are ‘time’ and ‘knowledge’—that there’s not enough time to devote to self-care or not knowing how to go about it,” Parkinson said about the harm ignoring self-care can be. “However, most of us do intuitively know what to do if we’re paying attention to what’s going on internally and externally. We can begin with simple changes like resting more often and paying attention to our breathing. Notice when your breathing feels constricted and do some inhalations and exhalations until you feel more comfortable.”
By using the methods that this workshop covered as well as the resources students can find from the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, students can find that large stressors that seem so imminent can begin to ease up. While the actual work might not disappear, a change in thinking can help everyone approach these situations in a better and more harmonious way.
“I think that contemplative practices, short term and long term, offer the possibility for students to be intentional about developing self-care skills, promoting a calmer mind and more stable mental states. This will then support students’ capacity to manage their own stress and to find outlets so they can relax their minds. Relaxation and sleep are often sacrificed in a college student’s daily routine, which can be the start of a slippery slope to more entrenched and dysfunctional sleep cycles,” Assing said about the solutions to the outer strains of the community. “A personal commitment to one’s choice of contemplative practices is an essential factor to future progress.”