Meditation and Mental Health: An Interview with Professor Brian Nichols

Professor Nichols is the program director for Religious Studies in the Department of Humanities and teaches Buddhism, Chinese Religions, and Yoga and Meditation. Faculty Forum tracked him down to talk about meditation and how it might benefit us in uncertain times.

Faculty Forum:  What began your interest in meditation?

Brian Nichols: It really began when I was an undergraduate. I was really interested in philosophy and I took an East Asian religions course, and that led me into Buddhist philosophy and thought. And I found Buddhist approaches to human knowledge and experience quite sound.  So that got me interested in trying meditation. So I went with a friend to this meditation center and we took a 10 week course.  We read a book by a well-known Buddhist teacher, Thubten Chodron called Open heart, Clear mind, and practiced mindfulness meditation. That was my introduction which I have continued to build on through reading, practicing, and teaching in different contexts and different communities over a period of 25 years or so.

FF: What led you to develop a meditation course at MRU?

BN: I continued my study of Buddhism as a graduate student at Rice University.  Rice was in the process of developing a program in contemplative studies, which essentially brings forms of meditation into academic contexts in order to enhance things like creativity, attention, concentration, compassion, mental wellness, and add such values to the study of architecture or literature or nursing or other disciplines.  This provided me the background to develop the course that I’m offering now at Mount Royal called “Yoga and Meditation.”  Students are asked to do a number of different things for that course, but one of them is to adopt a contemplative form of practice for the duration of the course and they track their progress in a journal.

FF: How do you think meditation is useful for people in terms of mental health in this time of social isolation?

BN: Meditation can help us to avoid harmful mental habits like rumination where we get a negative thought and we attribute a kind of external reality to that thought and get caught turning it over and over again until it produces  feelings of fear or anxiety. Meditation can help us arrest that process by helping us identify our thoughts as questionable or negative as they arise. And so we don’t get caught up in them.

Right now is a particularly challenging time with things like COVID, budget cuts, racism, the US election, and climate change. These things aren’t just going away and they continually assault our peace of mind.  Meditation can provide grounding to weather these storms. Rather than get wrapped up in and overwhelmed by  anxiety, grief, anger, fear and the like, meditation allows us to take a step back and just breath. It’s not that we turn away from these challenges, but we don’t let them paralyze us. We can generate a sense of stability from which we can evaluate and respond appropriately.

FF: So for somebody who’s never done any meditation, what’s a good entryway into the practice?

BN: Well, there are a number of ways that you might get started. A good way is to find a community that is teaching meditation, because then you have the ability to learn from someone who has experience as well as external motivation to keep you engaged at the beginning.  If you are simply looking at YouTube videos, there’s a lack of support and a lack of clarification about how to do the practices. So it’s really safest if you’re able to find an actual teacher and one MRFA member, Nicole Libin teaches meditation and now she is teaching online. If faculty are interested in learning that would be a place they could go.

FF: You mentioned the limitation of learning from YouTube, but are there any kind of red flags for you in terms of apps “selling” meditation?

BN: It’s important for everyone but perhaps especially faculty to become more aware of how neoliberal ideas and logic have infiltrated every aspect of our lives, personal and professional. So in the context of meditation, we can see this happening when meditation is presented in terms of commercial logic.  The idea being that you could pay a certain amount of money to achieve a certain amount of peace.

You can’t buy peace, you can’t purchase tranquility. So I would recommend people find sources of teaching, at least initially that are on a donation basis. So if there’s an app that has a subscription associated with it, I would suggest finding a free one. 

Another issue is a misunderstanding and misuse of these traditions to support ego-enhancement. Don’t go in with the idea that it’s all about me; the traditional context of these practices is to benefit self and others. 

FF: What should faculty members prioritize when they’re learning meditation?

BN: Just commit to just doing the practice, okay? Don’t have grand ideas, “Oh, if I do this, I’m going to be more calm.” Or “if I do this, I’m going to clear my mind.” That’s a real pitfall. You need to enter it with an open-minded approach to following the instructions, just doing it as instructed, and then seeing what happens. Forget about enlightenment or whatever. Just do it with genuine curiosity.

You can’t force clarity. That’s something that you have to allow to happen by doing the practice. A practical pointer would be doing whatever it takes to limit distractions; put the phone down!

Watch Professor Nichols teach the MRFA Communications Officer everything there is to know about meditation and yogic flying in 3 minutes and 11 seconds!