A statue holding a lit candle
A statue holding a lit candle


A quieter now

It is both the work and the adventure of a lifetime not to be trapped in either our past or our ideas and concepts, but rather to reclaim the only moment we ever really have, which is always this one.

—Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners

I sit down at my desk to write this story. I turn on my laptop, gather my notes, and open Word. Just as my fingers start to tap the keyboard — ding — an email arrives. I can answer that one tomorrow.

Ding. Another one. That I can’t ignore. And that reminds me, I told them I’d help them with that other thing today. It’ll just take a second.

Chime. A text from my husband asking if I can run home at lunch today to let the dog out. We’re also out of bread, and I need to remember to run by the grocery store. Let me write that down. Where did I put my pen?

Ring. “Did you send those files to the client yet?” Let me do that right now. Is this one the most recent version, or is that one? I’ll have to check.

The day progresses, and the to-do list builds. The gas pedal is mashed to the floor, and a leisurely cruise turns into a race down the Autobahn. My mind jumps between thoughts and tasks, each fighting to get to the front of the line. I keep telling myself that it will be easier to approach this writing assignment with a clear plate and head.

Soon, it’s 3:30 p.m., and my Word document is still sitting open with nothing more than a headline, a few half-formed thoughts, and a blinking cursor.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and try to recall Shari Motro’s first-year seminar: Sex, Mindfulness, and the Law. Every Tuesday, 16 students — as well as faculty, staff, and students from around campus — gather in the Law School Commons. The room is buzzing with pre-class chatter as we stand around a circle of chairs. Motro walks in, quietly removes her shoes, and takes a seat. Without a word, the activity of the room dissipates, and everyone makes his or her way to a seat on a chair, a couch, or a cushion on the floor.

“This is the time when we say goodbye to our phones,” she says. “We’ll come back to them in a little while.”

And then, we sit. It’s not an easy thing at first. I wonder, can I stay in this position for 15 minutes? How, exactly, do I let go of my thoughts? Is this really going to work?

Before I know it, the time passes and everything just feels … calmer. Slower. Still, even. My foot has lifted off the gas pedal.

"Before I know it, the time passes and everything just feels … calmer."

Perhaps because of the faster-paced and increasingly connected, yet equally disconnected, world in which we live, mindfulness practices — methods to bring intentional focus to the present moment — have been getting more attention in recent years. Yoga and meditation classes are packed to the walls. Meditation apps like Calm and Headspace are trending. Mindfulness institutes are opening in an effort to research practices and integrate them in a holistic healthcare model.

This is the time when we say goodbye to our phones. We'll come back to them in a little while.

At the University of Richmond, Motro isn’t alone in teaching students how to use mindful meditation to manage stress and live a more engaged and focused life. Roger Mancastroppa, associate director of the Academic Skills Center, and Kris Day, a psychologist with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), also explore a variety of practices in their first-year seminar, Stress Reduction Through Self-Awareness, as well as in their one-on-one interactions with students who visit the Academic Skills Center and CAPS.

“When you live in a very competitive society, there’s a lot of judgment, and comparison, and competition to out-achieve,” Mancastroppa says. “The education system falls right in line with that. We take the greatest achievers, they come here, and they’re extremely competitive. When they can’t handle it, they start to come apart at the seams.”

When the lion attacks

No one questions that technology has made our lives easier in countless ways, but with it has come the expectation that we can do 10 things at once. There’s a heightened urgency in everyday life that can be triggered by seemingly mundane situations.

Kris Day explains that when we come across one of these triggers, the amygdala, one of the most primitive parts of the brain, is activated. It alerts the brain that a threat exists and initiates the fight-or-flight response. The body’s sympathetic nervous system kicks in, cortisol and adrenaline are produced, the heart begins to race, and the breath becomes shallow. Reproductive and immune systems slow down, allowing other, more necessary, functions to take over.

“This was great for our ancestors because they would recognize, ‘There’s a lion about to attack me,’” Day says. “But in the reality of our world now, an email can set that off. Now it’s things that aren’t that threatening, but our system still responds to them like they are.”

Over time, endless triggers and extended time in a fight-or-flight state is depleting. It can lead to fatigue from a constantly active mind and body or illness from a compromised immune system.

Day teaches students how to recognize these automatic responses and instead engage the parasympathetic nervous system — relaxing the jaw muscles and taking a deep breath, for example — to manually override the body’s reaction.

“We can’t turn off our alarm system, and we don’t want to,” she says. “We need to be able to protect ourselves from danger. Instead it’s learning to enhance awareness, to slow down our physiological response, and to put the situation into context and perspective.”

This isn’t to say that these same techniques don’t apply in cases where less mundane threats exist. Mancastroppa was introduced to mindfulness when experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after an Army deployment to Haiti in 1994.

He particularly struggled with hypervigilance, which he describes as the past infusing itself in the moment in an unreal way. “I was hypervigilant about everything and everyone around me when I was in public, especially in large crowds,” he says. “Even though I knew I was safe, I still felt like my life was in danger.”

Mancastroppa tried counseling and a variety of techniques to manage his PTSD, but ultimately, mindfulness practices were the only approach that worked for him. “I learned to be aware of myself and my body,” he says. “It was a huge paradigm shift in my life.”

Calming the brain

Shannon Rosser speaks rapidly as she lists everything she’s dealt with in recent years. Caring for her father through a terminal illness. Divorce from her husband of 30 years. Breast cancer. Medication that left her cloudy and unfocused. A diagnosis of ADD in her late 50s. Early retirement from her career as a high-level business executive. Moving from Washington, D.C., to Richmond. Returning to school in the University’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

Any one could pose a distraction, but combined? It’s no wonder Rosser has difficulties with concentration. Not usually one to ask for help, she was apprehensive when she went to the Academic Skills Center and met with Mancastroppa.

His questions about her history and understanding of her experiences established Rosser’s trust. When he suggested she try mindful meditation, she set aside her hesitation.

Rosser wasn’t sure Mancastroppa’s own practice, which comprises up to an hour of meditation every day, was possible. “My first thought,” she says, “was I don’t want to have to set aside an hour to do that.” She started with shorter guided meditations, but as she felt more in control, she let the practice slip. That’s when she found the benefits of her brain training start to slip away — much like any other exercise — and she realized a regular practice wasn’t only possible, but necessary. Rosser now tries to incorporate 30 to 45 minutes of guided meditation a day.

“I always want to be going, and if I let that stuff start swirling around in my mind, I’m doing things but I’m not prioritizing any of them,” she says. “Now I know it’s OK to just sit there and think about this one.”

“I tell myself, ‘You have lots of good ideas, but you need to calm your brain.’ It’s not a magic cure. But a half hour, 45 minutes — that’s a small price to pay for the rest of my day to be great.”

Philosophy, psychology, religion, or all of the above?

Are meditation and yoga religious practices? Can opening the mind also make one receptive to negative influences? Questions like these have led some to think that mindful practices are in conflict with their religious beliefs or their desire to not subscribe to any faith tradition.

As scientific research continues to back the benefits, though, mindfulness is gaining more attention, and many who previously avoided the practices out of religious concerns are now reconsidering. Lucy Graham, ’15, president of UR Zen, a student organization that supports the exploration of meditation, says the practice can offer a neutral middle ground for those who aren’t looking for a religious practice.

“People who trust science as a way of getting at truth can look at meditation, and it’s proven and they can trust it,” Graham says. “They find it as a happy medium and a stepping-stone where they can be spiritual without making conceptual commitments that they’re not ready to make.”

Mindfulness is gaining more attention, and many who previously avoided the practices out of religious concerns are now reconsidering.

"If this doesn’t work for you, try something else."

But as more students explore meditation for non-religious reasons, Kevin Heffernan, the University’s Buddhist campus minister, has had to expand his role beyond serving the campus Buddhist population. In his workshops and at the weekly gathering of the UR Zen student group, he works primarily on teaching the physical practices. He says these techniques are concrete and have nothing to do with beliefs — at least, nothing beyond the belief that it will help.

“I just hope that they find skillful ways of living that lead to more wakefulness, more compassion, more self-compassion, more loving kindness,” he says. “And I think you can achieve that through a lot of different ways. Buddha himself said, ‘If this doesn’t work for you, try something else.’”

A culture of mindfulness

When asked what a campus culture of mindfulness could look like, CAPS psychologist Kris Day describes people walking around without phone in hand, noticing the beauty that surrounds them, and engaging in meaningful in-person conversations.

Day, Roger Mancastroppa, and law professor Shari Motro are working with other faculty and staff to question what a campuswide culture might be — and what it could take to get there. For starters, they hope that instilling a mindful mindset in faculty could create a trickle-down effect where faculty acknowledge student commitments outside their classroom and assign workloads with that in mind.

“It’s not to get them to slack off on their students,” Day says. “It’s getting them to understand that they need to give these students, and themselves, permission to slow down.”

They also hope that by incorporating meditation techniques in class, students can learn to not only manage time and stress but also explore other potential benefits.

For instance, 16 students in Motro’s class are spending their first semester at Richmond looking at the intersection of mindfulness with sex and relationships, specifically when it comes to consent.

“The issues that come up in sexual relationships parallel issues that come up in other types of relationships,” Motro says. “We’re asking, ‘Can we be really honest about our own meaning of yes, no, and maybe and articulate that clearly? Can we listen to someone else whose desires might be different from our own?’”

“Mindfulness practices can help us do this. They help us be more conscious, more deliberate about our actions and the state of our mind and heart.”

The outcome of these explorations remains to be seen. If we’re focusing on the present moment, only a few things are certain. In a high-performing academic environment in a fast-paced world, some students, faculty, and staff are searching for stillness, and a handful of instructors are teaching them to pause, breathe, and experience the world around them.

“In the beginning, it doesn’t matter if it’s two minutes,” Mancastroppa says. “And that moves to three and then to five, and if I can get them to do 10 minutes a day after one week, they come back and talk about the transformation in their life.”

And maybe, just maybe, this one writer can quiet her thoughts just long enough to finish this one story.