Learning to Slow Down

At the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, students excel in contemplative study.

Photo by Norm Shafer / Courtesy of UMW

One hour south of Washington, D.C., and the beltway’s hectic pace, a Zen garden beats at the heart of the University of Mary Washington. Along with Buddha statues, Oriental rugs and Tibetan texts, the garden is part of the Leidecker Center for Asian Studies.

“The Zen garden was [built] to support the contemplative studies program as well as Asian studies,” says Dan Hirshberg, program director for the contemplative studies minor, “but more broadly, it is there to serve the wellness of the student population, giving them a place of refuge on campus.”

UMW is one of few universities in the world that offers a contemplative studies minor, an interdisciplinary course of practice and study that draws upon the arts, humanities and sciences. 

“We really focus on contemplative practice as a skill,” says Hirshberg, “just as students learn critical thinking, creative problem-solving, writing and arithmetic. … In the contemporary era where visual technology overwhelms almost everything else, being able to slow down somewhat and take a breath is really essential.”

The minor not only promotes mindfulness and self-exploration, it also embraces psychology and neuroscience. Participating students are required to meditate every day, beginning with five-minute sessions and progressing to 45 minutes, using sensory headbands to record their brain waves and chart their growing state of restfulness. 

“The idea is not just to have a perspective that is traditional or philosophical and serving a religion, but it will actually incorporate science,” says Hirshberg. “Today with rigorous scientific method as well as FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electro encephalopathy), we have a whole new range of tools in order to explore our experiences.”

No matter what technologies are incorporated, the program will always focus on reducing anxiety and increasing concentration by teaching students to relax in the present moment. Which brings us back to the Zen garden and the three massive boulders it contains. According to Zen tradition, stones such as these are said to invoke a vision of perfection in our imperfect world. And that gives all of us something to reflect upon. UMW.edu

This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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