Many people believe that meditation is used to improve one’s self. Noel Coakley, a counselor at the Psychological Counseling Center, believes that reducing meditation to a self-improvement tool misses the essence of why meditation is important. In contrast to meditation as a tool for individual improvement, Coakley sees mediation as a way to connect more deeply with those around you and to exist more fully in your community. 

“Mindfulness for Beginniners: Rest in the Storm,” an upcoming mindfulness retreat co-organized by Coakley, will use the community-building aspect inherent to mediation in order to introduce students to the practices of meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness is the mental state one achieves by focusing on the present moment.

The retreat will take place on Saturday, April 18 in the Usdan Student Center, the Peace Room and several other locations around campus. The retreat is presented and sponsored by the PCC, the Multifaith Chaplaincy, Student Activities, Brandeis Interfaith Group, Sangha Meditation Group and Hillel. This is the first time that a mindfulness retreat, open to all students, will occur on campus. 

“When we learn to have a more loving conversation in our mind, the internal parallels the external,” Coakley told the Justice. He hopes this “loving” interaction that occurs during meditation will serve to strengthen the bonds among students who partake in the mindfulness retreat. Coakley has expertise in mindfulness-based psychology and holistic health and in treating depression, anxiety and substance abuse. 

Meditation can actually be used, according to Coakley, to increase empathy toward others and improve social relationships. “The same areas of our brains light up when we are paying attention to what we might be thinking about as when we are paying attention to what someone else might be thinking about,” Coakley said. 

 Rev. Matthew Carriker, the Brandeis Protestant chaplain and a co-organizer of the retreat, will teach awareness through a spiritual role. 

 “Brandeis students are so stressed. I mean, it’s great, because they’re so hardworking and highly motivated, but at the same time, at least in my talking to students—which I do a lot—a balance is hard, and having self-care practices has been a challenge,” Carriker said. He explained that there are many ways to be mindful—for example,  through mindful sitting and walking. These activities will be included in the retreat as a way to gain presence and introspection. “It’s kind of like physical exercises that in many ways get your body healthy. We’re trying to promote different ways to get your mind, body and spirit holistically healthy,” Carriker said.

This January during the midyear orientation, orientation leaders were taught mindfulness training to promote to all midyear students. “I think they really enjoyed it, because there was, like, this hunger for it, because Brandeis culture, is to have like three majors and 10 extracurriculars. So I think there’s a hunger for ways to feed your spirit,” Carriker said. 

 This community feeling will improve the usefulness of the individual practice of meditation during the all-day retreat. According to Coakley, in the process of learning to meditate, vocalizing what is challenging about the practice is helpful. Students of meditation can become frustrated when they can’t initially keep their focus or concentrate fully on their breath and come to the conclusion that meditation is not for them. 

“Not only is meditation a challenging practice, but we often have the extra layer of judging ourselves for not being good enough,” Coakley explained. “Getting together and being able to name that aloud takes out the extra layer of self-judgment.” 

John Saylor, a member of the Technology Services Staff who is contributing to organizing the retreat, said that the most difficult part of meditation is facing his own mind. However, he says meditation could be made more successful by scheduling a specific day for it. “I have been developing nice friendships with others helping to organize this retreat … A student could learn something that was unknown to them before the retreat,” Saylor wrote in an email to the Justice. Saylor also holds staff run sit group on Tuesdays. 

Coakley believes that meditation can have a profound effect on your mental, physical, spiritual and social well-being. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Coakley said. “But it can help decrease thoughts that lead to suffering.” Coakley uses the concepts of mindfulness and mediation in his therapy work. He finds that some people meditate most effectively when movements, such as yoga, are added to their practice. 

According to Coakley, not only does our individual suffering decrease, but we can also reduce the suffering of those around us. “By learning to think in a certain way, we can improve our empathy and our relationships,” Coakley said. “If we’re not paying attention to what’s going on in our mind, it’s hard to pay attention to our relationships with other people in our life.” 

—Brianna Majsiak contributed reporting.