April 20, 2012

Meditation for Extra Credit.


I assign meditation as extra credit in the Introduction to Psychology course I teach at a Florida community college.


Most of my students are “the working poor,” and they need all the help they can get. But since it’s Florida, there are a few students every term who say they can’t meditate because their pastor said it’s dangerous. Meanwhile, our textbook is stuck in 1976, with meditation covered in the half paragraph on Herbert Benson’s “Relaxation Response.” So, I present the task to the students as simply an extra credit assignment and nothing overtly spiritual.

My students know stress is bad for them, but they literally have no way out.

I gave them a little survey at the start of the term, which asked: “Are you a full-time or part-time student? Do you have a full-time or part-time job? Do you have full-time or part-time family responsibilities?” And many of them checked “full-time” for all three.

As the term goes on, the excuses for late papers can be riveting: “My ex-husband came in the middle of the night and threatened me with a gun and took my three-year-old son to Alabama . . .” Or sometimes, it’s just dreary: “I was called in to work for a double shift, and if I said no, I’d lose my job . . .”

This is a fully online class, so we never see each other face to face, and I never had any good reason to tell them I’ve been on a spiritual path since before they were born. I just opened up a discussion forum with some basic instructions, asked them to meditate for a week, and report back.

So, here’s a snapshot from my unsophisticated little patch of the Deep South:

> “Well, the first challenge was to find time to do this and a quiet location. Hard to do when you have two kids two cats a bird and a bunny. Oh, and two jobs and full time schooling. If anyone needs meditation it would be me so I plopped down in the middle of my backyard and closed my eyes. With the sun just starting to tick behind the trees, I started to focus on my breathing. I have been doing this everyday without fail since this was posted and I can’t believe I’ve lived this long without it.”

> “I am very stressful during the week. I have five classes, take care of my baby sister and work at Wendy’s. So I never really get a peace of relaxation in my life like I should so most of the time I’m always tired or depressed. But meditation has really lifted my spirit.”

> “Okay, so I tried it. I went in my room everyday for a week sat on the floor crossed my legs and took deep breaths. As I was counting and humming (and feeling kind of stupid) I did notice my stress level seemed to go down quite a bit. That is after I got over the fact that I looked like an idiot. I probably won’t ever do it again to be honest but it was an interesting little trial.”

They get the extra credit points no matter what they say, so I think these responses are real. Earlier, I said a lot of them have “no way out.” They’re in a trap built on dead-end jobs, too many kids, high schools that wasted their time, abusive parents, too many drugs, on and on. (I hear about all the rest of this in other discussion forums.) The future might be a paved-over suburbia and a “good” job, and for this, they work really hard. So, I let myself imagine that this tiny extra credit might be the seed of something.

The way out might really be the way in, and a few of them will find it.


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Editor: Cassandra Smith / Brianna Bemel

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