When Eli Benioff ’17 returned to campus this fall, he knew he could cope. He was returning from a whirlwind of events — leaving second semester freshman year, being committed to a psychiatric facility, then taking sophomore year off to recover. He knew his second take would have to be different. Freshman year, his mechanisms for coping with stress were decidedly unproductive. He frequently played video games, smoked marijuana, watched Netflix and binge ate. He did his work, but his habits took a toll on his body.
Sitting in one of the few comfortable chairs in Bass Cafe and speaking more audibly than expected, Benioff isn’t someone you would immediately peg as a mediator. He speaks without slowing down, as if his thoughts are on a treadmill whose speed you can’t decrease.
It could have happened anytime, he said, but it turned out to be his first year at Yale. “I had been doing the same things during high school, and then I hit my breaking point around freshman year. In the process of doing my work, I wreaked havoc upon my physical well-being,” he said.
When he arrived home, his psychiatrist urged him to try meditation. “I started mindfulness [a form of meditation] in July 2012 because my psychiatrist said, “You need to do this. You’ve been resisting working on yourself for too long.” Sixteen months later, mindfulness meditation is what keeps him centered.
To those who don’t participate in the mindfulness or meditation communities, the distinction between the two is often unclear. Perhaps their differences are best explained with the image of a pyramid. At the top lies meditation. A rung below sit its various forms, of which mindfulness is one. But mindfulness by itself exists as well — a sort of corollary to the pyramid. It is possible, then, to practice mindfulness without doing mindfulness meditation.
According to Hedy Kober, a Yale professor of psychiatry and psychology who researches addiction and the effects of mindfulness on addiction, mindfulness has two primary components: increasing attention to the present moment and cultivating an accepting, instead of reactive, attitude.
Benioff tries to practice mindfulness at least once every day. To him, that doesn’t necessarily mean sitting down cross-legged, eyes closed, and assuming the traditional meditation pose. “Sometimes I’ll meditate looking through my dorm room window out at Payne Whitney; sometimes I do it on my shorter runs, when I run through Salovey’s backyard,” he said matter-of-factly. “I tried meditating in the shower today.”
Those daily moments, even when snatched in the midst of other activities, help him not only deal with stress, but also be more compassionate, both to himself and others.
“At home, there are fewer people and things to annoy me,” he said, recalling his year of recuperation. At Yale, though, people and stress abound. And that’s where loving-kindness meditation plays a role, he said.
The essence of loving-kindness meditation is the extension of compassion and love to others and, ultimately, yourself. You begin by extending those feelings to someone about whom you have decidedly positive emotions — “Like your cat,” Benioff offered. Then you move on to someone with whom you have a neutral relationship, “like the cashier at Starbucks.” Third, you transition to someone with whom you have a difficult relationship.
And last, you arrive at yourself. For Benioff, “That’s always the hardest part.”
PUTTING SCIENCE TO PRACTICE
Reuben Hendler ’14 talks like someone who meditates. Sitting in Woodland Coffee & Tea, a sparse, Zen-like space adjacent to the upscale Union League Cafe, he spoke about the benefits of mindfulness practice at a tempered, metronomic pace.
Hendler can tell the difference between his meditating self and his non-meditating self. Meditation helps him to behave in accordance with his values, he said, noting that people often lose control over their emotions and say or do things that don’t reflect who they are. In addition to improving relationships with others, meditation has helped him develop an accepting relationship with himself. “It’s incredibly therapeutic on a personal level,” he said.
Mindfulness meditation dates back to Buddhism’s beginnings. The idea is to empty your mind and simply be aware of your surroundings and accepting of yourself. But it wasn’t until the ’80s, when University of Massachusetts Medical School professor Jon Kabat-Zinn began studying the effects of mindfulness meditation, that the notion of using the practices as a behavioral health treatment technique entered the medical community’s literature.
Kabat-Zinn had studied and taught mindfulness, but he was only able to make it ‘legitimate’ within the medical community when transitioned from just training people to studying the effects of their practice, said Judson Brewer, a Yale professor of psychiatry who researches the effects of mindfulness on addiction and cognitive control. From the larger sphere of mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn created a specific technique, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is increasingly emerging as a treatment for stress and chronic illness.
Intractable chronic pain, depression, anxiety, alcohol dependence, cocaine dependence and smoking addiction — according to Brewer, mindfulness has been shown to help alleviate all of the above. The impacts extends to cognition and performance, too. “There’s a paper that just came out that shows that it improves your GRE scores,” he said.
As mindfulness has extended from the religious and spiritual spheres to the realm of clinical research, it has also gained a following in the secular world. At Yale, a secular mindfulness community is just beginning to grow. When Hendler founded YMindful in spring 2012, it was the first group of its kind established in the University’s history.
YMindful arose amidst a handful of other meditation and mindfulness offerings. New Haven Insight, the Yale Stress Center and Indigo Blue — a center for Buddhist life with which Yale broke ties last year — were all avenues to practice, but Hendler wanted something specific that the campus had yet to provide. While Indigo Blue offered a space for “coming and going without hindrance,” Hendler was looking for both the support of a group and the discipline that would come from meeting with others at a set time every week.
Every Saturday from 2 to 3 p.m. in Jonathan Edwards College, YMindful gathers to simply be. The group rotates session leaders, and every leader chooses which practices to bring into those 60 minutes. Loving-kindness, body scans and simple breathing exercises are often employed.
To Benioff, the therapeutic aspect of mindfulness comes largely with abandoning expectations. He explained that when people are first exposed to meditation, they arrive with a set of assumptions about ‘what should be happening inside [their] head,’ but the act of setting up expectations is diametrically opposed to the essence of meditation.
“There is no ‘should,’” he said. “It’s just sit down and empty your mind.”
But in the process of emptying their minds, those who practice mindfulness are, consciously or not, doing something much more active with their brains. According to Sara Lazar, a psychiatry professor at Massachusetts General Hospital, the data show that in addition to having an impact on mood and cognition, meditation changes the actual structure of the brain. And it does it in an extremely visible way.
In a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, participants completed eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to take a snapshot of participants’ brains two weeks before treatment began and two weeks after it ended. The results showed something fascinating: gray matter in the hippocampus — the part of the brain where learning, memory, self-awareness, and compassion take place — had increased for those participants who had undergone MBSR. Furthermore, gray matter had decreased in their amygdalas, the brain region that sparks anxiety and stress. The body of research is still growing, but so far, the results have been promising.
Every Saturday, on the lawn of Jonathan Edwards College courtyard, a group of students sits quietly outside for an hour. Around them the metronome of moving feet, students hurriedly walking past on their way to dorm rooms and dining halls, continues. The students sit quietly. Two people stop to have a conversation in the middle of the courtyard. The students sit quietly.
When the members of YMindful gather to meditate, each of them falls into their own world. But even on their own, they are together. Christina Bradley ’16, who has been participating in YMindful sessions for the past few weeks, said being in a group allows you to understand aspects of your own practice of which you were not previously aware. And perhaps more importantly, “You don’t feel alone when you’re doing it.”
Benioff agreed with Bradley’s sentiment. Each session begins with everyone in the circle introducing themselves. You may already know all the people there, he explained, but that doesn’t matter — it’s about setting the tone.
To him, that tone is all about togetherness.
Describing the YMindful community that convenes every week, Benioff spoke as if he were repeating loving-kindness mantras to himself. “We’re here together. We came here together to meditate. We’re going to get to know each other a little bit.”
Although mindfulness practice has been met with skepticism in the past, its health benefits have become harder to question. Kober cited the field’s gold standard randomized control trials as indication that there is little reason to doubt the positive impact of mindfulness on stress, depression, and anxiety.
While Benioff has immersed himself in mindfulness on campus, there are many who know little about its existence. And even for some of those who are aware, time may be seen as an obstacle.
Spencer Klavan ’14 had heard about YMindful from Hendler a while before he began attending sessions.
“I didn’t have the gumption or the bandwidth to commit to regular practice,” he said, noting that many students balk at the idea of a daily practice of any magnitude. Sometimes, “it takes a little kicking in the pants.” But Klavan added that mindfulness is extremely portable, and doesn’t need to occupy clock-time the way some people expect it to. It doesn’t require sitting down for a designated time — you can just stop, take a moment and register your experience, he said.
And when you do that, slowly, you start to become aware that reality is conditional on perspective.
In a soft tone, Klavan presented an analogy:
“It’s the difference between living under water and having no idea what water is, and being able to surface and take a look at the whole thing.”