Covid-19 Sparks (Virtual) Mindfulness on Campuses

Photo by Juan chavez on Unsplash

“What do you need today? What do you need right now?”  


Gail J. Stearns poses the question to her audience of twelve little camera feeds on her laptop screen during a Zoom callunsure if her question will elicit a response. Then a graduate student speaks up: She was supposed to leave for Panama to start a job; her future is uncertain; and the uncertainty is triggering anxiety that she doesn’t know how to cope with. Then another woman speaks: She is a mother of two young children and she’s afraid of what the future is going to look like and is struggling to juggle between childcare and work every day. She feels exhausted. Soon everyone in the call is speaking - fear, anxiety, uncertainty, confusion, exhaustion, stress - are words that are echoed repeatedly. 

Stearns nods empathetically as each member shares their struggles, and she skillfully steers the conversation into a meditative space. Breathe in. Breathe out. As the conversation nears its end, a participant thanks Stearns, I needed this, you have helped me just be here in the moment today. 

Stearns is no stranger to these conversations on campus at Chapman University, where she’s also an associate professor of religious studies and the Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel. As the pandemic continues, adding to what was already an epidemic of mental health challenges, college campuses across the U.S., like Chapman, are witnessing a rise in the need and desire for meditation and mindfulness activities. 

Mindfulness helps people center the anxiety they are feeling right now. It is a tool for them to realize what they need in the moment and accept that they cannot control or predict the future,” says Stearns. We have opened virtual chat rooms, hosting online masses and interfaith prayers, offering online Qur’an classes, interfaith dialogues, meditation and yoga activities. I’ve received calls from our HR [human resources] and IT [information technology] department to do private zoom meditation calls, in addition to meditation calls every Tuesday at noon. Everybody needs more emotional and spiritual support now than they did before.”  

The move towards mindfulness meditation on college campuses is not new. In 2014, the University of Southern California launched Mindful USC, a service from the Provost’s Office that offers training programs, classes, practice groups, and special events to cultivate a culture of mindfulness and compassion in the campus community. There’s also a free app available for the community to access their courses and content at any time. In the last six years, between the programs, classes, and the app, more than 7,000 community members have been trained in mindfulness, explains Varun Soni, Dean of Religious Life at USC. 

In the wake of the pandemic, he says the demand for these classes and programs has tripled, and the current waitlist has a little more than 1,200 people in it. He adds that the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life is also witnessing an increase in messages and calls as community members are reaching out for more online spiritual resources and programs.

People crave community in times of crisis and turn to religious and spiritual practices to feel comfort. There is a lot of anxiety, stress and frustrations now. Mindfulness has become an opportunity for them to think about how they can develop or deepen their spiritual practice during lockdown,” says Soni.  

Soni believes that having an existing campus culture and content around mindfulness has allowed them to respond rapidly to the current crisis.  

“Part of the increased engagement is because more people are able to access these resources, as they now have the time, and also more need,” says Soni. “Mindful USC came out of my personal experiences with loneliness and anxiety during college days. I believe today there’s even more spiritual, emotional, and physical stress that college students must navigate in campus life; and it’s amplified during the pandemic. Having a space where we can all connect, see each other, and seek comfort is absolutely necessary. And, it’s not just about mindfulness, but about building positive psychology and emotional intelligence.”  

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response for virtual mindfulness sessions, Soni wonders if online connectivity is sufficient. 

“I’m already feeling Zoom fatigue. I know my colleagues are feeling it too. We are online for longer hours than we have ever been, and it’s starting to exhaust us,” says Soni. “Self-care in other ways is important during this time too. Throughout the day, I am playing so many roles – as a father, a colleague, a dean, a teacher, -- but then I grab my helmet and get on my bike and I bike for miles. That’s the only time I don’t exist as anybody for anyone, but just as myself for myself.”  

Though it remains to be seen how effective online mindfulness programs will continue to be in the long run; for now, it is a crucial part of emotional and spiritual support to campuses across the country 

New York University recently hosted NYU Together, an online vigil webinar for people to come together and name their emotions, validate their feelings, and deliver messages of hope and inspiration 

The webinar attracted around 1,250 people and included a panelist of interfaith chaplains and student leaders, who recited poetry, sang songs, led prayers and meditations, and shared messages of hope and solidarity. One of the main messages emphasized by student leaders was to encourage people to take rest – emphasizing that during a pandemic, it’s okay to feel a little lost and uncertain, and it’s okay to not be productive.  

The project was led by Yael Shy, Senior Director of Global Spiritual Life at NYU and Founder of Mindful NYU, one of the largest campus-wide mindfulness initiatives in the country. 

“One of our participants later said to me, ‘I didn’t know I needed this, but I needed this’ and that was one of the moments where it really hit home how much people need resources like mindfulness right now,” says Shy. “A lot of people are at the heart of fear and upheaval and it’s incredible and important that we are able to offer the support that they need to understand their struggle.”  

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

North Carolina is not alone in regard to macro-level efforts by state governments to increase access to vaccines, subverted by micro-level actions by individuals.
A través de mi experiencia, sé que las familias hispanas han sido gravemente, y desproporcionadamente, afectadas por la pandemia, y los datos de la Encuesta sobre Diversidad Religiosa y Vacunas de 2021 de PRRI-IFYC lo corroboran.
"It is permissible within our religion to defer, or to make up your fast later if you're feeling sick."
From experience, I know that Hispanic families had been greatly, and disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and survey data from the 2021 PRRI-IFYC Religious Diversity and Vaccine Survey corroborates this.
As the last few days of Ramadan are upon us – take our interactive quiz to find out how much you really know about this holy month.
We weren’t sure what to expect or how to navigate the complexities of getting to know colleagues from a distance, but IFYC team members Silma and Nadia welcomed us into their homes, their traditions, and their faith.
As the final project for the class, we wanted to do something that would make our campus a more inclusive, interreligious place.
IFYC is collecting prayers and meditations from diverse faiths to show our solidarity with the people of India, as well as links to charitable organizations that people can support.
Generally, tradition holds that the body is to be cremated or buried as quickly as possible – within 24 hours for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, and within three days for Sikhs. This need for rapid disposal has also contributed to the current crisis.
“Humanitarian Day embodies why Islam is relevant in America today. It’s why many Black Muslims embraced Islam, to be part of the solution, not only in their personal lives, but in their communities." - Margari Aziza Hill, MuslimARC
Recently, I asked a group of IFYC Alumni to share what they do in one sentence. I love their responses because they capture who they are so well.
As a nurse and a physician occupying different spheres in relation to the patient, Anastasia and I held comparable but also differing views about the role of religion and interfaith in the realm of patient care.
El movimiento necesita artistas, educadores, trabajadores de la salud, padres, funcionarios electos, científicos, clérigos, directores generales, y cuantas personas sea posible para hablar en contra de la injusticia donde sea que la veamos.
The scholarship covers the students’ tuition, as well as housing and living assistance while they pursue undergraduate or graduate degrees across all 18 of Columbia’s schools and affiliates.
En esta foto del sábado 9 de mayo de 2020, el Rev. Fabián Arias lleva a cabo un servicio en casa, al lado de los restos de Raúl Luis López quien murió de COVID-19 el mes previo, en el barrio Corona del distrito de Queens en Nueva York.
It is certainly within the rights of philanthropic and political institutions to 'not do religion,' but such an approach undermines any meaningful, holistic commitment to community or place-based humanitarian efforts in much of this country.
Last month, Kevin Singer, co-director of Neighborly Faith, brought two interfaith leaders together to discuss their respective publications and the consequences of the Equality Act on religious organizations, institutions, and places of worship.
It is in this spirit respeaking memory and finding time to etch it into the future that I offer the following exercise. It is designed to do with your friends or folks – preferably three or more. Take some time with it. Use it as a catalyst to...
Imagine my surprise upon coming to USA and celebrating my first Easter, but didn’t people realize it was Easter? Why are all the egg die and chocolates already sold out and none left for us celebrating a few weeks later?
They will, in other words, be learning the skills of mindfulness meditation — the secular version of the Buddhist practice that has skyrocketed in popularity to become America's go-to antidote for stress.
This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.