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Weekly USU Mindfulness Meditation Sessions Offer Stress Relief, Improve Readiness

Navy recruits meditate during a Vesak ceremony inside the Recruit Memorial Chapel. Vesak is a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha.

By Ian Neligh

The prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and the brain’s gray matter all benefit from regular meditation practice. Studies from the Department of Defense to John Hopkins to Harvard show practicing mindfulness reduces anxiety, depression, pain and dramatically improves memory.  

With these benefits in mind, a group called Midday Meditation formed five years ago at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) to provide students, faculty, and staff an opportunity to unwind.

In its early days, the midday meditation group met wherever there was a free classroom or space. With the rise of COVID-19, the once-a-week meditation group adapted and went online — but its mission remains the same.

“It’s for anyone who feels overworked, stressed out, tired, maybe even unsatisfied,” said Dr. Jennifer Rusiecki, professor of preventive medicine in the university’s Department of Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics and one of the group’s founders. 

Rusiecki jokes that some have the misconception meditation can only take place in an uncomfortable, austere environment with demanding gurus. Rather, she said, the weekly 30-minute sessions are an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of mindfulness meditation in a relaxed environment. 

“It takes us out of the crazy thought process most of us are in 99 percent of the time,” Rusiecki said. “I know how busy life is at USU, and it seems like just another thing to think about doing, but the benefits of simply taking some time out, even if it is just once a week, to intentionally sit and be still are tremendous.” 

The weekly midday meditation sessions began in 2016 when Rusiecki and retired USU staff member Sylvia Scherr had the idea to provide a regular time for formal meditation to the university community. Their inspiration was to help encourage wellness for anyone interested. 

At the time Rusiecki, an epidemiologist, was applying for grants to do studies focused on how mindfulness and mindfulness meditation could influence epigenetic patterns and influence health.  In other military environments, previous studies showed that it could help reduce pain and stress related to post- deployment and post-traumatic stress disorder for service members, and improve impulse control.  According to USU’s Consortium for Health and Military Performance, it also enhances a service member’s readiness “in garrison, during training, and in theater.”

Both Rusiecki and Scherr had completed courses in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and regularly practiced mindfulness meditation.  

Rusiecki said that taking note of the present moment in a meditation practice sounds easy — but is far from it.

“It is very difficult to get still, slow down, notice their breathing and then notice the sounds around them and how their body feels,” Rusiecki said of practitioners. “Sometimes, the simplest thing is the hardest thing.” 

A screenshot of four people in an online call
The weekly Midday Meditation group was formed five years ago at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. With the advent of
COVID-19, the group had to adapt, but its mission remains the same - to provide students, faculty, and staff a chance to unwind.
(Screenshot courtesy of Dr. Abigail Konopasky)

According to Rusiecki, first time meditators should just enjoy the present moment and not try to achieve anything in particular, adding there's no such thing as a good or bad meditation practice. 

Other faculty members, students and staff were brought in over the years and proved to be essential to the development of the meditation sessions including assistant professor of Medicine Dr. Abigail Konopasky. Konopasky has practiced meditation for 15 years and said she wanted the meditation learning sessions to be experiential. 

“There’s no knowledge that I’m teaching people, there’s nothing I’m trying to convey like the history of the Civil War,” Konopasky said. “It’s that I want to set up space for people to have an experience where they can be present in their bodies, and their minds, and find some contentment and peace there.”

Konopasky said meditation is a great way to bring down anxiety and stress and help take some things in life a little less seriously. She added it helps to put things into perspective — something helpful in the fast-paced life of a medical or graduate school student. Konopasky added a great way to start was spending as little as five minutes each day focusing just on breathing.  

“We’re a medical school, so what we teach is steeped in evidence — and there is a lot of evidence in scientific literature about the benefits of taking even just a few minutes in our day to practice mindfulness,” Rusiecki said. “Doing a formal mindfulness meditation weekly is a great way to get started.”