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Breathing the stress away

Inaugural MindfulNU cohort seeks to make meditation practices more accessible to students
The inaugural MindfulNU cohort was developed and co-led by Eric Budzynski and SESP senior and RSL Mindfulness intern Cormac Callanan (pictured) to help students engage in mindfulness-based stress reduction practices in a more approachable way.

When Medill freshman Stephanie Kontopanos arrived at Northwestern, she had been practicing meditation on and off since the seventh grade.

But it wasn’t until she attended a drop-in meditation session offered by Religious & Spiritual Life (RSL) at Northwestern that she finally found a community. When she learned about the inaugural MindfulNU cohort that took place during Winter Quarter, she decided to sign up.

It was here, as part of MindfulNU, that she encountered a transformative quote by author and poet Kahlil Gibran. 

“You are far, far greater than you know — and all is well.”

It was shared by Eric Budzynski, associate director for religious life and chapel music, to remind participants of their wholeness, that they are much greater than the sum of their parts.

“Those two phrases have become so important in my life to the point where I've adopted it as an affirmation for when I'm under stress, when I'm about to go through something scary or uncomfortable,” Kontopanos said.

Crafting an intentional community

The cohort was developed and co-led by Budzynski and SESP senior and RSL Mindfulness Intern Cormac Callanan to help students engage in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) practices in a more approachable way.

A certified teacher of MBSR, Budzynski has been offering the in-depth eight-week curriculum at Northwestern for five years. But he realized that the weekly 2.5-hour meetings were a big commitment, especially for undergraduates.

Acknowledging this, Budzynski and Callanan hoped to hit a sweet spot between the casual nature of the drop-in meditation sessions and the intensive routine of the MBSR program. The duo adapted MBSR into MindfulNU, which runs for six weeks each quarter.

During weekly meetings, Budzynski and Callanan lead students through a time of meditation, then reflection and inquiry about their experience, and finally an educational component, during which the two guide the cohort through a specific theme in mindfulness, such as mindful consumption or communication.

“It’s a really lovely space,” Callanan said. “One of the parts about the [drop-in meditations] is that sometimes people come and sometimes they don't come. You might see someone for six months, and then that's kind of their run with it. So, I think one idea was that we wanted to have a more intentional community.”

Weinberg senior Eli Ganz expressed his appreciation for his involvement in this kind of purposeful community — a group of students who, Budzynski described, “don't have a specific reason to belong together,” but do so anyway, trusting each other in their willingness to be open and grow alongside other cohort members in the program.

“We've definitely bonded,” Ganz said. “There's a special connection with those people who are coming into this space and being vulnerable together and taking kind of a leap of faith on this program.” 

Learning how to let go

In a journey that can often be isolating and challenging, Kontopanos said that seeking out wholeness through mindfulness practices, alongside her cohort members, has been a rewarding experience. 

She shared an icebreaker activity that stuck out to her. To prepare for the meeting ahead, cohort members wrote something they wanted to let go of on a piece of paper, threw it into a pile and chose a random member’s paper to read aloud in a circle.

“As each person went around and read someone else's worries or things that they wanted to let go, we eventually began to see how there was a pattern,” Kontopanos said. “It just helps you feel less alone and realize that we're all going through very similar things.”

Ganz found this take on mindfulness refreshing and noticed that MindfulNU allowed space for not only self-growth, but communal growth as well. 

“A lot of mindfulness these days is almost marketed as learning to be more productive and bettering your life,” Ganz said. “I think that can be a byproduct of it, but the goal is not to be more productive. And it's not really a ‘self’ thing either. Really, when you learn to open up more space for yourself, we learn to open up more space for others in our life, too.” 

MindfulNU will be running its programming again in Spring Quarter. To learn more about how to get involved, visit this website.

Esther Lim is a sophomore in the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.