College can be a stressful place, and Furman Professor of Biology Min-Ken Liao’s classroom on exam day is definitely not an exception.
“I really create a lot of suffering,” she said. “I can smell the fear. They are not doing well.”
Liao takes no pleasure from this. In fact, the anxiety experienced by students deeply bothers her, which is one of the reasons she and Associate Professor of Health Sciences Meghan Slining began trying to balance the karma scale by offering the Koru Mindfulness program to the Furman community.
“This is a system we all agreed upon, but this is not a system that brings us peace and joy,” Liao said. “So this is something I can do.”
The Koru Mindfulness program was developed by psychiatrists Holly Rogers and Margaret Maytan at Duke University’s student counseling center to teach young adults “mindfulness, meditation and stress management.” Since 2015, Slining and Liao have been offering Koru Basic each semester to the first 12 Furman students who sign up.
Over four 75-minute weekly sessions in the Haynsworth Room of the James B. Duke Library, participants are taught what mindfulness is (essentially focusing thoughts on the present moment), and how to use it as a meditation tool. The learning curve is often steep.
“The most common thing people say is, ‘I can’t do it. My mind won’t stop racing.’ And that’s the first thing we talk about: Hearts beat, lungs breathe, minds think. The point is not to get your mind to stop thinking. It’s to be aware your mind is thinking when it’s thinking,” Slining said. “So if you’re sitting here and you’re doing your best to bring your attention back to whatever your object of focus is, then you’re doing it.”
A recent study published in the medical journal Depression and Anxiety surveyed more than 67,000 college students and found that depression and anxiety rates are rising, with one in five reporting suicidal thoughts — more than double the national average for adults. People have used meditation for thousands of years to calm emotions, and while the practice has been the object of surprisingly little scientific focus some studies do suggest that meditation can help manage chronic stress.
“I’m a biologist, and evolutionarily we’re always on guard. We have to (be). It’s built in. But that is really tiring, and that takes a lot of energy,” Liao said. “It’s really ultimate suffering, because we’re always afraid. We’re always worrying. So any brief moment (of relief), that is huge … This brings people peace, and it’s just so amazing. You ask students to sit and close your eyes and just breathe, and you can see the contour of their face change in three breaths. You can see it just soften.”
Slining has been meditating since she was a teenager growing up in Seattle. Initially, “Mindful Moments by Min-Ken and Meghan” was a Friday-afternoon drop-in before Slining and Liao earned certification in Koru Mindfulness and began offering it as a more intentional class, and Slining is currently on a five-year pathway to become a mindfulness-based, stress-reduction instructor.
“Our students are chronically hyper-aroused, and that has negative impacts on our health, which leads to maladaptive coping strategies, which can lead to exhaustion and burnout and substance abuse and addiction and all that kind of stuff,” Slining said. “There’s a body of evidence that suggests that there are (meditation) benefits that change the structure and function of our brain to have better focus, to have greater creativity.”
Liao and Slining also teach two classes a year for faculty and staff, and last year they were able to offer an advanced Koru class, Koru 2.0. In addition, they lead a four-hour silent retreat open to students, faculty, staff and the community once a semester. In the spring, the two also taught mindfulness at the Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer, South Carolina.
All of the mindfulness work they do is unpaid, and neither would have it any other way.
“I have a strong desire to do things out of pure intention … So it’s really all about me,” Liao said with a laugh. “I don’t think the universe provides us the opportunity to do something that’s good and right too often … This is the oasis of our semester.”
“The reason I really keep wanting to do this is I feel like it’s with very small little ripples that we are changing our community,” Slining adds. “When Min-Ken and I taught the 2.0 class, we asked the students … to just reflect on how this has made a difference in your life, if at all. One person said, ‘I like Furman better when I do this.’ People talked about feeling like they are connecting with others in a different way on campus.”
For more information on the Koru Mindfulness program and how to sign up, contact Slining at Meghan.Slinging@furman.edu.