Well-Being Center

How mindfulness can help you cope with 2021 (All of it)

February 8, 2021

Q&A

Monti Datta, a political science professor and co-leader of a faculty learning community on mindfulness, offers tips on how to use mindfulness as a tool for dealing with the uncertainty and stress one month into the new year.

How does mindfulness help people deal with stress and anxiety?

Mindfulness, or the practice of being in the present moment, can be a powerful tool for stress reduction, relaxation, and wellness. During the pandemic, many of us are at wit's end. And for our students, my heart breaks. The level of stress our students experience on a daily basis is a trial by fire. As a generation, 18–24 year olds are living through a kind of war with the pandemic. I recently learned from a segment on the PBS News Hour that 1 in 4 college-aged students seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.

When I start each class, I invite my students to join me for a moment of mindfulness. We typically start with settling into our chairs, closing our eyes, and then gently following the breath for one or two minutes. Physiologically, deep breathing tells the body that it is okay to relax, and this opens up the parasympathetic nervous system. By taking a moment to breathe deeply, and by using the breath as an object of awareness, my students can take back a bit more control in their lives, in a world in which there seems to be so very little within their control.

We can use meditation to plumb ourselves, going beneath the surface.
headshot of Monti Datta
Monti Datta

Associate Professor of Political Science

Meditation, contrary to what some may say, is not about stopping your thoughts and turning off your brain. Meditation begins with calming and resting the body, but then can continue with observing one's thoughts. I sometimes tell my students to think of their thoughts like clouds that may pass over a lake. Our thoughts are sometimes dark and stormy. Other times, our thoughts are light and ethereal. Regardless of what our thoughts are, they do not define us. Rather, like clouds passing over a lake, our thoughts simply reflect where we are in the present moment. Who we really are is more like the lake itself and not the sky above. If we can calm down our minds long enough, we can begin not only to recognize our thought patterns, but also look more deeply at the nature and origins of our thoughts. We can use meditation to plumb ourselves, going beneath the surface.

Is there a historical perspective on how finding calm in challenging times helped people endure difficult historical events?

One of my favorite meditators is the Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, born and raised in Vietnam and exiled when he began to speak out against the war. In some of his writings, Nhat Hanh reflects on his experiences using mindfulness-based techniques to deal with the horrors of war. At some moments during the Vietnam War, enemy combatants would come to his village, or to the village of one of his students. When confronted with a life-or-death situation in the middle of nowhere, Thich Nhat Hanh practiced mindfulness.

What I can learn and appreciate from this story is that sometimes we are surrounded by people or groups who are not at their best. Sometimes, we may even be surrounded by those who would want to do us ill-will, emotionally, professionally, or even physically.  We can choose to act wisely in such situations. But to act wisely, Nhat Hanh teaches us that we must first be grounded, focused, and in the moment. That way we can be more mindful of the words we chose to speak to others as well as the actions we wish to take.

I'm also a fan of Ruth King, whose book Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, gives me hope. King urges us to use mindfulness-based methods so that we may be more attuned to how others are feeling in our nation steeped with racial injustice and systemic inequality. If we can come to the table with this lens, then we may be better equipped to begin and sustain the hard conversations we need to have about race — conversations we need to have not only at the national level but also in the city of Richmond and on campus here at the University of Richmond.

What does science tell us about the health benefits of meditation? 

I continue to be astounded by the observed reported health benefits of meditation. I'm not a doctor or health care provider, but research from the Mayo Clinic, for instance, suggests, "Meditation may offer many benefits, such as helping with concentration, relaxation, inner peace, stress reduction and fatigue.”

Anecdotally, over the past four years, I've noticed meditation has helped my students. Some students have shared that meditation has helped them alleviate some stress before taking an exam, or just helping them get into a different headspace where they can begin to think more clearly and question some core assumptions they take for granted — for example, needing to have a double-major and a minor due to peer pressure.

Meditation isn't the answer for everything — far from it. But I do believe it can be a useful tool of inclusive pedagogy, conflict resolution, and increased well-being.