Practicing Stillness

From March 2016

By Anne Hartman

Photo by Robert Kozloff

As the campus awakens on a Monday morning, a small group gathers in Rockefeller Chapel and takes advantage of a rare opportunity: time away from screens and books. They have a chance to be still, enjoy the quiet, and temporarily forget the to-do list of the day ahead.

This is Twenty Minutes Still, a program offered by Spiritual Life each weekday morning. On this day, a group of eight students joined a volunteer facilitator who guided meditation in Rockefeller Chapel.

Elizabeth Davenport, dean of Rockefeller Chapel, started Twenty Minutes Still seven years ago, at a time when meditation programs on campus were almost nonexistent.

“Our minds are just constantly jumping all over the place, even in our sleep,” Davenport says. “Meditation is a chance to try to still the mind a little bit, and it has an effect on how we are able to self-regulate and how we manage our day. The ability to simply be still for part of our waking day, even for a short period of time, makes a difference to who we are in the world and how we function.”

As meditation and mindfulness programs help students to slow down and be in the moment, they also give them time to gain a stronger understanding of themselves, says Jigna Shah, assistant dean of Rockefeller Chapel and director of Spiritual Life. Spiritual Life is known for its work with students of all religious traditions (and none), bringing them together through interfaith activities that inspire new insights and understanding of our spiritually diverse world. In addition to Twenty Minutes Still, other meditation and mindfulness programs have also found a home under Spiritual Life. Students can use these programs to explore their faiths or to simply be. For all students, these programs can help them to build resilience and find sources of strength that they can turn to during difficult times.

Spiritual Life houses a meditation room in Ida Noyes Hall for individual practice and quiet reflection, accessible to the UChicago community during building hours. The Spiritual Life team also offers Breathing Room, a weekly program, starting with twenty minutes of meditation, followed by time for students to engage in various mindfulness activities, from working with mandalas, sand, and beads to simply sipping tea.

In their work to help students to be more mindful, the Spiritual Life team found a natural partner in Health Promotion and Wellness. Both Campus and Student Life programs, Shah says, work to benefit the community and help students to better understand themselves and improve their spiritual and overall health.

Spiritual Life and Health Promotion and Wellness offer two yoga classes together, restorative yoga and gentle yoga. Students have dubbed restorative yoga “sleepy yoga”; it involves gentle movement and thirty-five minutes of constructive rest, says Meredith Haggerty, a movement specialist at UChicago who teaches yoga classes. Gentle yoga is a more active class that includes simple core work and stretches to improve strength and balance.

Yoga, Haggerty says, can be beneficial for students in different ways. For some, it’s a spiritual practice, while others choose to work on tensions. Whatever their motivation, students can use yoga class as a time to be mindful.

“A yoga practice allows us to settle into observing and accepting ourselves at any given moment,” Haggerty says. “When we carve out time to observe our thoughts as well as our physical sensations, we become more intimate with them.”

After three years of restorative practice, third-year Katie Weibezahl says that yoga classes are cathartic and have helped her manage stress.

“I definitely think that going to restorative classes helped to make my experience at UChicago happier and more enjoyable,” she says. “I believe it is really important that, at a place where everyone is constantly thinking and working, there are outlets where one can stop, breathe, and reflect.”

UChicagoSocial: Campus and Student Life