Students find peace in the classroom and beyond
The Rev. Catherine Quehl-Engel has a stack of evaluation papers now that her adjunct course, Mindfulness, Meditation & Psychological Health, has wrapped up for the year.
But what she’s left with isn’t your typical course evaluation, it’s proof that even though the course is over–her students are changing the Cornell community and the world around us.
Her students write:
“It made me realize that when you give love, there are higher chances to receive love.”
“My relationships feel stronger because I have increased gratitude for the people I love.”
“It made me more aware that everyone is going through something and they need love.”
The course is offered at the beginning of each semester and meets the first seven Mondays from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. and launched in the fall of the 2018–19 academic year. Students are asked to maintain a 10-minute practice on their own time each day, keep a daily log using an app, and fulfill a light amount of reading. In return, they get ¼ credit.
Junior Hameeda Tayiebur would say, though, students get much more than the credit.
“It is founded on the basis of living a meaningful and mindful life,” said Tayiebur, who is a double major in economics and business and international relations. “My daily morning task is to make sure that as I step out of my room, I have chosen to live from the inside to the outside. This class is helping me get to the core of who I am and holding onto it instead of getting carried away or buried in random life occurrences. I’m witnessing myself being calm regardless of what’s going on and it is pricelessly precious.”
The course mixes in a variety of practices including lower belly breathing, yoga, Qigong, and radiant heart compassion meditation for interpersonal healing.
One of the goals is to give students knowledge about how meditation and mindfulness can reduce negative thought patterns.
“What we’re doing in this class isn’t about trying to stop our thoughts,” Quehl-Engel said. “We practice noticing when we are ‘hooked’ or swept away by the rushing river of a difficult thought or feeling. Then, with compassion, curiosity, and courage—instead of beating yourself up with judgments and self-reproach—you soften, then re-focus your attention on the breath or other focal point in order get back to the river bank to watch that difficult thought or feeling float by.”
Another course objective is to establish an informal and ongoing awareness practice for their everyday lives.
“It’s said that for the typical person some 70% of our thoughts are worrying about the future or ruminating about the past—which means we aren’t fully and mindfully living in the Now,” Quehl-Engel said. “Whether it’s through seated lower belly breathing, or yoga, or walking meditation, or logging a daily gratitude, one of the other practices students try out in this class, we are cultivating that ‘mindfulness muscle’ of living more in the now.”
For Tayiebur, living more in the now is precisely what she learns from Quehl-Engel. Not only through the adjunct course but through a retreat led by the chaplain.
Every fifth block break for the past 23 years the college chaplain has taken about 15 students, faculty, and staff to New Melleray Abbey, which is a Trappist monastery nestled amid peaceful rolling farm fields near Dubuque, Iowa. The group stays there Wednesday afternoon through midday Friday.
“Before I left, I was afraid of missing out on the WhatsApp statuses and other seemingly life-dependent stuff,” Tayiebur said. “And on the second day, a different type of fear kicked in. I realized that I’m mostly striving to be present in the world while neglecting to be present in my life. The retreat gave me a wakeup call that I do not want to look back and wonder who lived my life or where it went.”
The power of these hands-on learning opportunities are impacting how students approach their day-to-day lives and that’s something that lasts long after a course or a retreat is over.
Students can sign up for the PSY 513 Mindfulness, Meditation, & Psychological Health adjunct class when they enroll for their other courses. It is recommended that first-year students wait until their second semester to enroll. Those interested in the retreat can contact the chaplain at email@example.com.