The Neuroscience of Meditation
Did you know that nearly 70 percent of St. Lawrence students embark on an off-campus study experience? When I stood under the study abroad map flagged with the seemingly endless off-campus options during my first tour at SLU, I never would have imagined that four years later, after studying abroad in Spain and guiding an Outdoor Program ski trip to the French Alps, I would be traveling 8,000 miles away for a St. Lawrence-funded trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Rewind to January 2018. With a class schedule consisting of Organic Chemistry, Anatomy and Physiology, and Human Nutrition, my inner-yogi and high stress levels were intrigued by the idea of a weekly meditation component in “The Neuroscience of Meditation” course. A new interdisciplinary class, taught by religion professor Mark MacWilliams and neuroscience professor Joe Erlichman, examines the role of meditation in Buddhism and the effects of meditation on the brain and body. Wow! I was hooked even before learning that SLU was contributing funds for our class to travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks in May.
Fast forward to May 2018. Within hours of my arrival in Chiang Mai, my fruit palate expanded greatly as I tried Thai-famous durian, jackfruit, mangosteen, rambutan, lynchee, and many more bits of juicy deliciousness. I could have spent our whole trip eating, but our two-week adventure was jam-packed with activities: a two-day meditation retreat with Buddhist monk Phra KK, an exploration of the many Thai Wats (temples) in the Old City of Chiang Mai, a seven-mile climb to a mountain-top temple to celebrate the Visakha Bucha festival, and a day spent at an elephant sanctuary nestled in the mountains. We were able to apply and experience the study of Buddhism and meditation to their relationship with Thai culture. After spending a semester discussing Buddhism as the central component of Thai life, exploring Chiang Mai allowed me to see and appreciate how Buddhism permeates Thai culture.
This class and travel component has been a highlight of my time at St. Lawrence. This class epitomizes the autonomy St. Lawrence professors have, creating curriculum and relevant experiences that relate to professors’ expertise and passion. The trip was a perfect combination of directed discussions and exploration, allowing the students to investigate and draw our own conclusions and truths.
My investigation continues today as I am still meditating in the Atwood Chapel each Thursday as the Teaching Assistant for the Neuroscience of Meditation course. I collect heart rate data as students meditate in an effort to examine the health benefits of meditation. When I came to SLU to study biology, I certainly wasn’t expecting for my love for science to take me around the world. So, thank you SLU; you never know where a class might lead you!