Meditation is some students’ path to serenity

UBy Adri Mehra University finals week can be stressful with some students cramming for tests and writing papers.

But others find relief by visualizing the words of their teacher, and focusing on relaxing and breathing.

Those students are members of The Diamond Way Buddhist Meditation Group, a student group that holds meetings at Coffman Union.

Ian Llanas, a group instructor, said mediation is useful for students coping with the rigors of finals.

“It’s a stressful time for them,” he said. “Believe it or not, meditation helps them quite a bit. They come back and tell us so.”

The group offers free guided Tibetan Buddhist meditation to anywhere from five to 20 students every Tuesday night in Coffman Union, and students from all disciplines attend.

“I can remember a session with students majoring in architecture, art, philosophy and psychology,” Llanas said. “Most students haven’t done much more than check out a book about Buddhism. No prior knowledge needed. Just bring an open mind.”

The session, which lasts approximately 20 minutes, begins with a 10-minute talk about Tibetan Buddhism.

Immediately following the talk is a guided meditation read from a text used in each of Diamond Way’s 400 international centers.

The text, which was given to Diamond Way founder Ole Nydahl by his teachers in the late 1960s, is updated slightly every two to three years to remain accessible to modern students, said Aaron Crook, the campus outreach coordinator for Diamond Way in the Twin Cities, but usually only a word or two is changed.

“We don’t water it down for the students,” Crook said. “We adhere strongly to the Tibetan methods of meditation.”

When meditating, people focus on relaxing and breathing, and on listening to and visualizing the words of the teacher.

Meditation has long been promoted as a technique to reduce anxiety and stress, and it has been practiced in Tibet for over 2,500 years.

Diamond Way’s presence at the University is part of an effort by the organization to offer students a chance to learn about meditation.

The group hosts public lectures from teachers traveling from places as far away as Germany, Crook said.

In addition to Minneapolis, Diamond Way currently has centers in La Crosse, Wis.; Madison, Wis.; Whitewater, Wis.; Winona, Minn.; and Chicago.

Each center is actually a household with a meditation space inside it, Llanas said.

“The setup is all very grassroots,” Llanas said. “The centers are loosely run by volunteers who have met Ole Nydahl and decided to step up and help out.”

Crook, also a nursing student and emergency room technician at the University, said Nydahl is expected to speak in the Twin Cities for the first time in late November.

Following the visit, Crook said, will be a five-day retreat in rural Wisconsin for his students, with lectures, group meditations and barbecues.

Crook said he traveled with Nydahl and his wife recently through North America, Europe and Russia.

“He sits down with you for a personal talk, then he touches your head with relics that are thousands of years old, and you just feel peace, this intense joy,” Crook said. “I’ve seen so many friends go in with a question and then totally forget to ask it because they’re so awed by the experience.”

Crook said Nydahl then asked him to be a teacher.

Nydahl himself has been traveling nearly nonstop for the past 30 years, teaching in a new city almost every day. Crook said the invitation he extends to students to accompany him is a standing offer.

Buddhists like Crook and Llanas are looking to groundbreaking research done by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Richard Davidson and others to prove what “mindful meditation” can offer to psychology and biology.

The BBC and the New York Times have both reported recently on the results of Davidson’s tests, which include MRI scans that indicate reduced anxiety in subjects that meditated one hour a day and six days a week for eight weeks.

The subjects were also found four months later to have developed significantly more antibodies against infection from a normal influenza vaccine than those in a group who did not meditate.

Crook said they can’t wait to bring Nydahl to Davidson’s new neuroimaging laboratory in Madison this year to further study the positive effects of prolonged meditation on the human brain and immune system.

Ultimately, Crook’s hope is that a short program of meditation, like the one he offers at the University, is prescribed by doctors someday as a remedy for pain and chronic disease.

“It may not be Buddhist-style meditation, but rather an interpolation that serves the patient in question and their condition,” Crook said.

Crook and Llanas also stress that the sessions are not closed-ended and they are available afterward to offer themselves as resources.

“A lot of the time, we’ll all go out for coffee or a beer, maybe get some dinner,” said Crook. “We love to stick around and answer questions to give people the information they need.

“We don’t evangelize or try to change people’s minds,” Crook said. “We feel the most important thing is to rely on your own understanding of the world. Be your own guiding light.”

Adri Mehra is a freelance writer.

The freelance editor welcomes comments at [email protected]