As of yesterday, I officially finished my first year of graduate school! This year has been an incredible whirlwind of personal and professional growth and development, immense saturation with academic material, and a constant balancing act of school work, work-work, and trying to maintain a semblance of a personal life. At times, I felt like I could conquer anything and other times I just wanted to curl into a ball and crawl in a hole. Grad school (and life) is a roller coaster of emotion.

One of the reasons why I love public health is because it isn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions. Public health examines the roots of inequity to understand how to build a more just society. Addressing health through this social justice lens is essential if we want to transform our society to be one where every person has equal opportunity to be healthy. However, learning about the roots of inequity can be emotionally taxing because what we’re really talking about is oppressive systems that were created by humans as a means to systematically oppress other humans. Not only are we reading peer reviewed literature on these topics, but we’re attempting to engage in dialogue with one another and create solutions and tools so that when we enter the workforce, we have the skills we need to fight for justice. Or, at least, we’re attempting to engage in dialogue. The reason why I say attempting is because there is a distinct difference between dialogue and discussion and often times, we (as a collective “we”) don’t make it all the way to dialogue. In discussion, people share their own views because they want them to be accepted by the group – to hopefully be deemed as “correct”, it’s an argument for validity. In dialogue, however, you’re putting your own personal biases on hold and searching for truth by listening and creatively exploring issues together through conversation and questioning. The goal isn’t to be right or to win, the goal is to learn and find truth. So what is stopping us from getting there?

I’m not sure that I have the complete answer and I’m honestly not sure what the complete answer even looks like, however, I want to share how utilizing mindfulness meditation can make it possible to engage in dialogue and act as an effective tool for self care so that we can actively participate in the world in a more fulfilling way.

Mindfulness meditation is described by Chu (2010) as “nonreactive metacognitive monitoring, where individuals try to cultivate new relationships with internal experiences by regulating things such as attention, awareness of present experiences, emotions and thoughts through nonjudgmental acceptance of those emotions and thoughts without avoiding them or over engaging with them.” According to the American Meditation Society, mindfulness meditation is most effective when practiced twice each day for at least 15 minutes for each practice. Mindfulness practices can include bringing attention to one’s breath or on a mantra and to nonjudgmentally release one’s attention from distractions as the mind naturally wanders.  Through mindfulness meditative practices, individuals are able to retrain their brains to use cognitive patterns that promote emotional intelligence, self awareness, and increased experience of connectedness (Chu, 2010). Mindfulness meditation is about being present for all experiences and decreasing emotional reactivity as a means to fully engage with ourselves and our reality (Lutz et al., 2008). It has been linked to stress reduction, decreasing emotional reactivity, increased relationship satisfaction, increased spiritual connection, and can be used as a tool to help with anxiety and depression (Chu, 2010; Lutz et al., 2008).

Engaging with emotionally heavy topics can cause physiological discomfort where individuals are tempted to use “thought suppression and avoidant coping to attempt to regulate negative thoughts and emotions”, but avoidance and disengagement often end up exacerbating problems (Lutz et al., 2008). And in the grand scheme of things, they don’t make the thing that you’re attempting to avoid magically disappear. Mindfulness meditation provides a platform to retrain our brains to be more comfortable engaging with all parts of our lives – good, bad and everything in between. By being present with our thoughts, emotions, and physical responses and not actively trying to suppress or manage them, we are allowing ourselves to remain open to all experiences. We are providing ourselves with the skill set we need to engage in dialogue in an attempt to search for truth. We are also giving ourselves the skills we need to recharge our batteries and decompress from the stress that comes with daily life so then when we are faced with adversity we can address it rather than avoid it.

Disclaimer, this is personal opinion: I don’t think that we’re all actively avoiding challenging topics because we don’t believe they need to be addressed, I think for most people, we have been conditioned and given more outlets (that are much more convenient) to avoid and disengage than we have been for addressing challenges in a healthy way. And a lot of the time, these half-hearted coping skills stick with us throughout the course of our lives, thus making engaging in dialogue and facing adversity uncomfortable and something to avoid.

The point that I’ve been trying to get at though, is that our communities are facing very real and very pressing issues that cause collective harm. It is our responsibility as active citizens to engage in self reflection, self care, and dialogue to figure out the ways in which we can contribute our talents and skills to build a more just and more equitable society. This can only happen when we start asking ourselves the hard questions and opening our eyes to the honest responses – perhaps mindfulness meditation is a tool that can help make that possible.

To find out more about meditation, please visit: http://americanmeditationsociety.org/

Written by Michelle Chavdar, Research Assistant, Master’s of Public Health Candidate

References

Chu, L. C. (2010). The benefits of meditation vis‐à‐vis emotional intelligence, perceived stress and negative mental health. Stress and Health, 26(2), 169-180.

Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in cognitive sciences, 12(4), 163-169.