Calming the Chatter

“The brain weighs about 3 pounds, which really isn’t that much when you think about it. Yet it believes it speaks truth to us at every turn. These thoughts, and words, and worries can easily overcome our ability to actually be present and act wisely. Mindfulness is about learning to let go of all that drama, and coming back to what’s actually happening right now.”

Libby Webb, a clinical social worker, is convinced that the ability to calm the chatter in our minds is a crucial skill for the modern college student. Yet mindfulness—a discipline that has its roots in ancient meditation practices—has typically been taught in ways that are not particularly relevant or accessible to college aged adults.

A Straightforward Approach

Working alongside Holly Rogers, a trained psychiatrist, Webb has been teaching mindfulness practice to Duke University students. The pair use the Koru Mindfulness curriculum—a methodology that Rogers developed with her colleague Margaret Maytan, MD.

The idea, says Rogers, is to take age-old techniques— from breathing techniques to visualization exercises and guided meditations—and apply them to the specific context and challenges of the college environment:

“We stripped away anything that felt too vague or wishy washy. We set all of our teaching within the context of student life. We gave the students homework. And we emphasized daily practice in short, manageable doses.”

Practical Skill Sets, Made Relevant to Students

The focus, then, is on practical skills that students can use to manage their stress, focus their minds, and gain perspective on issues and challenges that they may be facing. Rogers explains:

“College aged young adults have more choices today than ever before. They have less structure. Rates of suicide and depression are going up. Substance abuse is commonplace. I see all these students at an elite university who are supposed to be having the time of their lives and instead, they’re struggling. All of these competing pressures can start to feel like quicksand in the mind—and those pressures are not going to go away.”

As Webb puts it, “you have to gain balance within the muck in order to move across it”.

A Weird Space

Rogers discovered mindfulness back in the mid-nineties. Having just finished a stint of living in New Zealand, she visited her sister in Denver on her way back to North Carolina:

“I was in this weird space in my life. I was ambivalent about my career path, and I was coming back to an uncertain future. I stopped in at this book shop – the Tattered Cover – and found this book: ‘Mindfulness in Plain English’. I had no idea what mindfulness was at the time, but I sat down in the store, and I read that thing from cover-to-cover. It really changed how I look at the world.”

An Uphill Struggle

Rogers eventually began teaching classes to students through her job at the student counseling center at Duke. Despite some success, however, it became an uphill struggle:

“Every class, I’d struggle to keep students interested in the class. I’d start out with 10, then there’d be 8, then 5, then 3 or 2 students finishing the class. It just felt like a losing battle. And yet there were all these young people who were clearly struggling and who I thought could be helped.

To make it even more challenging, we had students dealing with a wide range of challenges including oppression, marginalization, financial limitations, as well as the more routine stresses of an intense academic environment. We were looking for a way to help a diverse group of people with a broad array of challenges.”

Mindfulness for Emerging Adults

Rogers expressed her frustration to Margaret Maytan, who was at the time a psychiatry resident at Duke who had also been teaching mindfulness skills. It turned out that Maytan had experienced very similar challenges:

“Staff and faculty had no problem grasping mind-body techniques, and applying the discipline needed to master them. Residents and fellows—these doctors in training with chaotic, stressful schedules —just couldn’t make the same commitment. The irony is that these are the same people who need these skills the most.”

Rogers and Maytan began developing a class aimed specifically for students and young adults, with a focus on accessibility, practicality, and immediate results. Rogers explains more:

“We started looking at the strengths and needs of our students. They did well with structure. They craved direction. And they needed context to understand the relevance of what they were learning. Yet mindfulness was typically taught in a very open fashion, it lacked context. And it relied on participants own discipline and determination. We decided to turn everything on its head.”

Proven Results

Rogers and Maytan named their class “Koru”, a New Zealand Maori word the spiral shape that represents balanced growth. As word of their approach got out, classes started to fill up – soon they were recruiting more teachers and even having to turn students away. The results, says Rogers, were often dramatic and reached well beyond the academic:

“There’s this grad student, let’s call him John. And he’s having a really hard time. He feels constantly criticized and belittled by his supervisor. He can’t stand him, and finds himself dreading coming to work. Next thing you know, John takes some of our classes. He starts looking at things differently, and understanding his situation as both complex and temporary. He finds he no longer hates his job. Nothing’s really changed about his situation. It’s just how John relates to it that’s shifted.”

Maytan—who continues to teach Koru—agrees that the course has had a powerful, life-changing impact for many:

“I’ve had people look me straight in the eye and tell me they wouldn’t have made it through college without Koru. That’s pretty gratifying to hear.”

In 2013 The Center for Koru Mindfulness was established to train others to teach Koru Mindfulness at college campuses across the country and other places young adults are found.