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Event in Hanover to explore mindfulness



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

HANOVER — Second-year Geisel School of Medicine student William Fletes tries to mix up his morning routine, especially during finals.

By looking around at the scenery or focusing on his own heartbeat, Fletes said he’s able to calm down, clear his mind and “not be bogged down by the weight of big tests coming up.”

These are strategies Fletes, who is 23 and originally from southern California, learned in an elective course on relaxation and resiliency that he took at Geisel last winter, his first in New England.

The elective Fletes took is one of a variety of initiatives at Dartmouth College that aim to help graduate and undergraduate students manage stress, anxiety, depression and sleep problems.

Dartmouth’s student wellness center now offers weekly meditation and yoga classes. The school also offers a physical education course for undergraduates that incorporates mindfulness techniques. During spring break, students can opt to take a trip to Kripalu, a center for yoga and health in western Massachusetts. Some of Fletes’ fellow medical students have begun leading regular meditation and yoga classes.

But given how full students’ schedules can be, Caitlin Barthelmes, the Dartmouth wellness center’s director, said mindfulness exercises need not take up a lot of time. Students can sneak in a brief moment to check in with their minds and bodies while waiting in line for a coffee, for example, she said.

“It’s about being present in the moment and paying attention,” Barthelmes said. “It’s easy to get swept away in what’s going on in life.”

To bring together people who run mindfulness programs on campus and in the broader community, Dartmouth will host a conference on the subject of contemplative studies this weekend. The term was first coined by Harold Roth, a professor of religion at Brown University, where contemplative studies is now organized as a formal track of study, combining brain sciences, humanities and the arts to examine the relaxed states of mind attained by meditation and other forms of mindfulness. Roth is scheduled to speak at Dartmouth’s event.

The concentration of study, as described on Brown’s website, takes an academic view of these practices, and it also requires that students participate in various forms of mindfulness.

The idea is to “allow for different spaces of self-cultivation (and) self-understanding for people who are going through moments of their own social change (and) transformation (at a) time in the world where everything is moving pretty fast,” said Sienna Craig, an associate professor in the Dartmouth Department of Anthropology who is one of the organizers of this weekend’s event.

Craig, who is a Brown graduate, said the conference and the demand for mindfulness resources is coming from students themselves, and the need for this focus is evidenced in recent suicides by medical students. Burnout, depression and thoughts of suicide are especially common among medical students and physicians, according to the American Medical Association.

Dr. Manish Mishra, director of professional education at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and an assistant professor at the Geisel, said that medical students are so busy focusing on getting to that next step in their training that they sometimes lose sight of the present moment.

Mishra, who is scheduled to participate in a panel focused on medicine and contemplative studies on Saturday, said the question for educators is: “How (do we) encourage them to come back inside of themselves (and) hold onto the things that they hold sacred?”

In today’s increasingly secular society, practices of mindfulness sometimes can take the place of more traditional religious practices, said Kate Gamble, the founder of the White River Junction-based Open Door Integrative Wellness. And practicing together, whether it be yoga, meditation, mindful eating, walking or listening, can provide a social support.

There’s a “health care benefit to that,” Gamble said. “That sense of a shared experience, a shared space.”

Techniques of mindfulness have found a place in Upper Valley classrooms outside of Dartmouth as well.

“Contemplative studies is something that’s become important in a lot of school situations … because it helps students become better learners in many ways,” said Brad Choyt, the head of school at Crossroads Academy, an independent kindergarten through eighth grade school in Lyme.

For example, students who develop an understanding of their mental state — through sitting quietly and focusing on their breathing or by taking nature walks — often are better focused during class, listen better and are able to be better friends, he said.

“I personally think it can be very helpful,” Choyt said.

For more information about the conference on Friday and Saturday at Dartmouth, visit sites.dartmouth.edu/contemplative-studies.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.