Duke may have one of the best law schools in the country, but in recruiting new students, its promotional materials point out that Durham's bar scene has exploded in the past few years.
At Carnegie Mellon, the pitch is similar: "Pittsburgh rocks after dark," prospective students are told.
The story is the same at schools across the country. The "student experience," which often includes binge drinking and raucous parties for undergrads, is for many students as important as getting good grades and a degree.
The Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, might as well be on another planet. Its “consciousness-based education” involves daily transcendental meditation for its 1,200-something students, organic vegetarian meals, and four hours a week of required physical activity. Its “ideal routine” stresses rest as the “basis of activity,” including a "strongly" encouraged 10 p.m. curfew.
That early bedtime curtain call may be what prospective students thought they left behind in grade school. But the university’s routines, particularly regular transcendental meditation practice — which involves sitting comfortably with eyes closed — is not invasive, says Craig Pearson, Maharishi’s executive vice president.
“Meditators report that once they begin to meditate, they naturally find themselves taking better care of themselves," he says. "But it’s not necessary to embrace any different lifestyle.”
And, according to Pearson, students who meditate can expect to see a variety of benefits, from increased grade point averages to better focus, memory, energy, ego development and brain integration. Meditation, he adds, can also improve relationships and lower stress and anxiety levels. “The benefits usually begin to be evident quickly,” he says.
With its daily meditation, Maharishi is a good test case for the efficacy of meditation for students. But other schools, including Brown University and UCLA, have found benefits to meditative practices without making it a requirement.
Increasingly mindful campuses
Meditation has quietly taken place on campuses since the 1970s, but it has been spreading on a larger scale in the last five years, says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.
In the past decade, “significant research” has demonstrated that mindfulness can help lower blood pressure, boost immune systems, increase attention and focus, help with anxiety and depression and “thicken the brain in areas in charge of decision making, emotional flexibility, and empathy,” says Winston, who spent a year in Burma as a nun and has practiced mindfulness meditation for 25 years.
“I don’t think mindfulness meditation is for everyone, although many people find it to be extremely helpful,” she says.
Statistics on mediation are tough to come by. Pew's most recent U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) found that 39 percent of adults claim to meditate weekly. (Buddhists self-declared higher rates: 61 percent, as did Jehovah’s Witnesses: 72 percent; Mormons: 56 percent; and members of historically black churches: 55 percent.)
A National Institutes of Health study in 2007, meanwhile, found that 9.4 percent of nearly 25,000 respondents had meditated in the past 12 months, compared to 7.6 percent of respondents in a study five years prior.
Catherine Kerr, assistant professor of family medicine and director of translational neuroscience at Brown University’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, has observed growing interest among students in her courses on cognitive neuroscience of meditation.
Mindful meditation, she says, is a “secularized practice” whose origins lie in Buddhism, although it is “put in a kind of secular framework.” The practice, she says, owes a lot to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who also founded the university's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979.
The scientific evidence for transcendental meditation — which is based on the spiritual practices of the Hindu leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who died in 2008 — is comparatively weaker, according to Kerr. “The gold-standard studies are not that strong,” she says, although she notes that many people, including long-term practitioners, report positive results.
Minding the gaps
At Brown, students are encouraged to meditate in addition to studying meditation. “One of the things that we see is that it’s really hard to describe from the outside what a practice is going to feel like,” Kerr says. “So it’s very helpful to get a taste of that.” And, she says, some students come away from Brown’s “meditation labs” unconvinced "that practice is the best thing since sliced bread."
“We want people to have a genuinely critical perspective on this, because we think right now in the culture there’s actually this very strong pro-meditation, pro-mindfulness wave, and we are very concerned about that,” she adds. “We want to teach our students to be critical about a mindless approach to mindfulness.”
That mindless mindfulness, which is more wishful thinking than good science, can be manifest in Huffington Post articles, for example, which “make it sound as if 100 percent of people who do this practice benefit, and there are no adverse experiences ever. That’s just not true,” Kerr says. “The big issue is that the media overstates the scientific findings in relation to mindfulness.”
The slight increase Kerr has seen in the number of Brown students who, for religious or spiritual reasons, travel to Asia, visit monasteries or join Buddhist practice groups pales in comparison to the "real growth." The latter, she says, occurs among students who major in neuroscience, have seen brain data, and want to know more.
There is, she notes, a great deal of distress in today’s culture about stress and “fragmented attention” due to mobile devices. Meditation “seems like a panacea to that, and it’s just not,” she says. And the obsession with "training" the brain fails to understand how brain change actually works, and if it's beneficial. Further, changing brain structure is a bizarre goal.
“It’s kind of like choosing a restaurant based on a chemical report about a recipe," she says. "You should really be thinking about what does it taste like, and how does it make me feel?”
Religious or secular?
At Saint Mary’s College of California, a Catholic school near Oakland, associate professor Jyoti Bachani recently used guided meditation on a daily basis in one of her classes. Meditation, she notes, is not necessarily religious in nature, and Bachani has used Kaiser healthcare podcasts, as well as programs from Stanford Health, in her teaching.
“For people of faith,” she says, “religious components would add support to strengthen the practice, and we all need that.”
Alan Brill, a rabbi and chairman of Jewish-Christian studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., has noticed a rise in secular meditation and yoga and a decline in religious meditation. Instead of the teachers trained in mysticism or religious meditation of 25 years ago, today's meditation is likely taught as a “practical skill by a guidance counselor, fitness coach or psychologist,” he says.
Something may be lost in the translation from supernatural to secular, says Brill, who teaches courses on Jewish mysticism and spirituality. “Besides the obvious — the loss of God and the religious elements — what is lost is much of the rich interiority and ethical concerns of the original paths,” he says.
Last semester, an Islamic Syrian student of Brill’s, who wore a hijab, told him that she wanted to keep her meditative practices secular to avoid conflict with clergy. “My Jewish and Christian students felt the same way about keeping the priests and rabbis out of it,” he says. “We live in an age of ‘spirituality’ and ‘religious’ as two separate variables, and therefore this separation is a mixed bag.”
Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter based in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was published in July by Cascade Book