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.”  

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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.