Students in Guadalajara have been taking part in an innovative university course that teaches them to meditate for course credit.
For the past six years, lecturer Cristina Preciado has been training students at the Western Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESO) to focus their minds on the present, becoming observers of their breath and the sensations in their body.
“Through this self-observation you acquire self-knowledge,” Preciado told themexicanlabyrinth.com. “You become conscious of who you are, what you say, where your thoughts are. Normally they’re in the past or future but we’re not even aware of that.”
The process gives insight into the habits of the mind. “You become more conscious and change things that are not serving you,” Preciado says.
A typical class opens with group sharing, in which students give feedback on their personal meditation practice, which begins as a five-minute daily exercise and gradually extends to half an hour as the course progresses.
In the next stage of the class, there is a guided meditation, where the students are verbally directed by the teacher.
According to Preciado, one of the great challenges of a course like this is deciding how to grade. “We had a whole semester of experts coming to help us find evaluation instruments, but we’re still not certain.”
The grade is partly based on participation but next semester this will be changed to stop extroverted students dominating.
To pass the course, students are expected to read the bestselling book by meditation teacher Eckhart Tolle: “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.”
“I have to make it very clear to them that they need to read the book and then they write a report, following certain guidelines,” Preciado says.
Despite the challenges in evaluation, the course has been a huge success. “The three groups fill up the day of the first registration and there are always students who still want to get in but can’t,” Preciado says. “Why am I saying this? It sounds like bragging. What I’m really trying to say is that it works. It really works. The people who put it into practice, it changes their lives. So it has to do with them really, I just share the information.”
So doesn’t Preciado see a problem with mixing education and spirituality?
“Well, academic courses will train you to be a good architect, engineer, psychologist, but an academic education is very limited. You can’t really be a good psychologist, a good engineer if you are not at peace internally. You’ll be affected if you have issues, problems with your family, problems with your co-workers.”
Meditation, however, can help you to maintain focus.
“You’re going to be a better person, and you take that person, yourself, with you, wherever you are, in any area. So there is no conflict. On the contrary, I would say it is detrimental for schools not to teach meditation.”
Preciado also refers to the increasing body of scientific and psychological research demonstrating that meditation can help people regulate their emotions, overcome addiction and deal with physical pain.
“There is a lot of scientific proof that meditation helps and a lot of very successful people meditate. It’s not a hippie thing.” she says.
Preciado’s message is similar to that of Mathieu Ricard, the French Buddhist monk and writer who was dubbed the “happiest person in the world” after U.S. neuroscientists scanned his brain. The test found he had an enlarged left prefrontal cortex, suggesting an “abnormally large capacity” for joy, thanks to years of meditation practice.
Ricard, whose lecture “Cultivating Happiness in Daily Life” was a sellout when he visited Guadalajara last July, is uniquely placed to outline the science behind happiness and meditation, being both a monk and a cellular geneticist. His central argument is that we all believe in the benefits of intellectual and physical exercise, but neglect emotional development. We think that we can simply decide to be more compassionate, without working on it.
“We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit,” he says. “We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change.”
Liz Llamas, a 21-year-old ITESO student from Guadalajara, says she obtained similar benefits from attending one of the notoriously intense Vipassana retreats just outside Mexico City. These courses, which are held in centers around the world, last for ten days and are completely silent, with students meditating for ten hours a day. The wake up bell is rung at 4 a.m., with short breaks for rest and two daily meals, both eaten before noon. It’s a movement that started in India, and is popular with all ages and social classes. One of its fundamental principles is that the course is given as charity, so there is no fee, and only students who have completed it can give a donation.
“It was very challenging,” Llamas told themexicanlabyrinth.com. “The first days were easier, but as the course came to a close, despite feeling more at peace in myself I was also getting more desperate to get out.”
Yet Llamas is certain that the meditation practice was beneficial.
“It was a rich experience, and I learnt a great deal. With regards to my personal life I found answers that I didn’t have before. Things cleared up. I don’t think it was easy to complete the course, but by the end, I was a much happier person.”