At Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha, students carve space for community healing

Students gather for weekly Mindfulness Meditation led by Buddhist in Residence, Priya Sraman on Nov. 14. (Lilia Kang / The Tufts Daily)

“Focus on one breath and then the next … and then the next.”

Priya Sraman’s words filled the silence of Goddard Chapel on Monday, Nov. 14 as the Tufts Buddhist in Residence led a breathing meditation. Eleven Tufts students sat cross-legged in a circle next to him with their eyes closed.

During the noon open block period on Mondays and Fridays, the Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha makes Goddard Chapel a peaceful escape from the rest of campus. Noah Schifrin, a junior, has been coming to the Mindfulness Sangha since he was a first-year. For him, the Sangha presents an opportunity to participate in something that’s rare at Tufts: an activity that involves not doing much of anything.

“Everything you kind of do at college, at Tufts particularly, you’re doing with some kind of goal in mind,” Schifrin said. “You’re not really allocating time into doing something unproductive, so [the Mindfulness Sangha] was really good to almost force myself [to] be like, ‘You’re not going to accomplish anything for an hour, and that’s helpful for you.’”

For Ann-Marie Lee, a first-year and one of the student leaders for the Mindfulness Sangha, meditation — particularly group meditation — is a way to promote healing on campus.

Collective campus healing is one of the Mindfulness Sangha’s main goals, in addition to being welcoming and known among all communities on campus, according to Lee. 

“We understand that there is a need for healing on campus, and we want to help facilitate that because the way you heal is different from the way I heal,” she said. “We all have different identities and backgrounds, and we all may be suffering maybe in different ways, or we cope differently.”

This message of healing and self-care is even more relevant to some members of the Tufts community following the results of this year’s presidential election, according to Lee. During this difficult time for many students, she hopes the Sangha can be a space for these students to heal together.

“I think in the wake of the election, whatever kind of fear, anxiety, stress you may have … Sangha may or may not be able to help with [it],” she said. “I think it’s reasonable to just be tired of having to fight for your rights … If you need rest more than anything else, I think that’s where the Sangha can come in.”

Increasing Student Involvement

Existing under various forms of leadership since 2001, the Mindfulness Buddhist Sangha has adapted to growing interest in mindfulness on campus and to a student-driven desire to make practicing mindfulness open to all, according to University Chaplain Reverend Greg McGonigle.

Before the Buddhist in Residence staff position was created at the University Chaplaincy, the Mindfulness Sangha was supported by various volunteer faculty and staff advisors approved by the Chaplaincy, McGonigle said. 

In recognition of a growing interest in and need for Buddhist and mindfulness programming at Tufts, McGonigle worked with Harvard Divinity School’s Buddhist Ministry Initiative to create the Buddhist in Residence staff position in 2015, naming the Venerable Upali Sraman — then the Tufts Buddhist Chaplaincy Intern — the first Buddhist in Residence. Sraman worked with Tufts until this past spring, according to McGonigle.

This August, Upali’s brother Priya Sraman entered the Buddhist in Residence role. Coming into the role, Sraman, a master’s student at the Harvard Divinity School, was happy to see a growth in student leadership and student input in the Sangha.

This year’s student leaders, Palak Khanna, Juleen Wong, Rasika Sethi and Lee, worked with Sraman to restructure the Sunday night meditations that were previously led by David Arond, M.D., who was then the Sangha’s faculty advisor and an assistant professor of public health and community medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine. The leaders are also restructuring the Monday and Friday meditations led by Sraman.

According to Wong, a senior who has been part of the Mindfulness Sangha since her sophomore year, the Sunday night meditations are now a space for students to lead meditation and have a more informal, smaller meeting with only other students. Wong also described how the Mindfulness Sangha leadership organized brainstorming sessions with other members to discuss what they wanted to get out of the meditation group this year and potential events the Mindfulness Sangha could hold.

One result from the brainstorming sessions was asking Sraman to make time during the Monday and Friday meetings for discussion, Wong said. After that, she said that Sraman started bringing in texts for students to discuss at these meetings.

By having students work with the Buddhist in Residence, Wong believes that the new structure for the Mindfulness Sangha offers more student voice.

“It’s more student-driven with an expert as a sounding board,” Wong said. “[Sraman] hears what we have to say and offers ways to [help].”

Building a Space for the Tufts Community

The way Sraman leads meditation is not strictly Buddhist. In recognition of the mostly non-Buddhist group of students at the Mindfulness Sangha, Sraman wants his mindfulness meditations to fit the needs of all the students.

“I know what [the students] really want is mindfulness,” he said. “They may not really want to practice Buddhism, and that’s what I think I should be doing to help them and support them in their meditation practice.”

According to Sethi, a senior who joined the Sangha as a first-year, the group has shifted to calling themselves “The Mindfulness Sangha” as a way to clarify that they are not practicing a “Buddhist” way of meditation.”

“[Meditation is] my search of what life is,” Sethi said. “I don’t like ascribing it to any religion.”

One of Khanna’s goals as a student leader is to make it known that the Mindfulness Sangha is a welcoming space that is open to people of all identities, experiences and faiths. 

“We all deserve to be loved and cared for,”Khanna, a junior who first joined the Mindfulness Sangha as a first-year, said. “We all deserve to have spaces where we can come and be open about ways that we suffer, stressors that we’re dealing with … not just academics but life stress, race-based trauma, sex-based trauma … [and] ways that [aspects] of our identities are oppressed.”

Sraman centers student voices and community building during the discussion portion of his Monday and Friday meditations. The students break into small groups and share their interpretations and analyses of short stories from the book Don’t Worry, Be Grumpy: Inspiring Stories for Making the Most of Each Moment, written by Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm.

Sraman hopes these discussion groups also create an opportunity to build community with one another.

“The purpose of the discussion groups is to get to know each other,” he said. “[It’s] not just coming to the [meeting] and leaving without knowing the name of another friend or student.”

The Power of Healing

While Sraman understands that students have tight schedules, he encourages everyone to include mindfulness meditation as a regular part of their student life in order to reap its benefits.

“[Mindfulness meditation] is not a one-time thing,” he said. “In order for someone to really benefit from mindfulness meditation … The more practice, the better it is.”

Similarly, Khanna hopes that students take whatever feeling or lesson they gain from the Mindfulness Sangha and bring it with them wherever they go outside of Goddard Chapel.

“It’s something that should become a fabric of your day-to-day life: trying to be thoughtful and compassionate…[and] trying to build conversation with others about important issues that matter to you and to others,” she said. “You are caring for yourself first and foremost, and you are caring for others.”

Wong hopes to reach out to the Tufts community at large through an upcoming campus-wide event. Between Dec. 5 and 11, the Mindfulness Sangha will create a mural about collective healing in Tisch Library for students to share how they suffer and how they heal, Khanna said.

Khanna hopes to include time to meditate, share spoken word and have a cappella performances. Lee believes the event could help normalize the healing process promoted by the group for students unfamiliar with it.

“I think we’re really hoping for this project to be a campus-wide testimony to the fact that there shouldn’t be a stigma around healing,” Lee said. “There shouldn’t be a stigma around recognizing that you’re hurt.”

While Khanna has plans to help people and effect change however she can, she said that without achieving self-care through mindfulness, her efforts would be less effective.

“I realized that in order to support others, in order to make the kind of change, do the kind of things I want to do in this world, I need to take care of myself,” Khanna said. “I need to keep track of my breathing. I need to keep track of my eating. I need to keep track of my sleep. I need to listen to myself first. Doing meditation, being in the space with the people, has let me [do that].”