Teaching meditation to incoming freshmen at William & Mary in the context of how it connects to a philosophy and a worldview struck Mark McLaughlin as quite useful.
So McLaughlin, teaching professor of South Asian religions, started the COLL 100 freshman seminar that has now grown into the COLL 300 course Meditation & Wellness — a very popular course that draws students from all disciplines.
“We have this very diverse student body at the table,” McLaughlin said. “Many of them from STEM coming to a religious studies class.”
Studying meditation through a liberal arts lens creates an ongoing conversation in the classroom, he said. At the same time, students coming in with different levels of prior experience with meditation are cultivating their own practices to see if it can possibly be beneficial to them.
“By covering a broad range of topics, from neuroscientific research to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, I received a comprehensive view of meditation I didn’t know I needed,” said Sammie Chaitovitz ’25, a double major in religious studies and finance.
“The class gave me an intellectual reason to meditate, and experientially taught me how to have a non-judgmental view of my thoughts and emotions. Thanks to this class, I practice mindfulness in my day-to-day life by focusing on the breath and letting all thoughts fall away in stressful and joyful moments.”
McLaughlin and three students who also serve as Wellness Ambassadors in Health & Wellness promoted the course in a “Ways to Flourish” podcast last spring. Flourishing is one of W&M’s university values and the course’s impact was recognized recently when McLaughlin received a 2023 Building Connections and Bridging Differences Award. The class is emblematic of the university’s efforts to offer the most personal educational experience of any public university.
“This class gave me a much deeper understanding of the practice, its intentions and its many benefits,” said Brooks Murphy ’25, a psychology major. “The heavily discussion-oriented style promoted a collaborative environment that fostered strong connections in our class. A year later, I still maintain many of the friendships I built in that class.”
McLaughlin researches sacred spaces and within that how philosophy and contemplative practices are intertwined to inform the spaces, which provide a place of practice and means of experientially understanding the underpinning philosophy, he said. He spent six years living in monastic communities studying meditation and yoga, developing his own practice and deciding to use sacred space as the lens through which he could explore these traditions.
In connecting with Brown University faculty about neuroscientific research on brain mapping of people while meditating, McLaughlin became interested in how that work has expanded the idea that meditation can lead to wellness. That dialogue between scholars in religious studies and neuroscience who are interested in the impact of meditation on wellbeing led him to envision the course.
Combining neuroscience and religious studies with mindfulness and wellness topics carries the subject matter across all campus lines. McLaughlin is teaching 50 students this fall in two sections of the course and had 140 override requests he was unable to grant.
Students and alumni who have taken it in the past recounted its positive impact on their entire college experience, and they continue to visit McLaughlin for discussion and counsel in a continuing conversation, he said.
Kevin Aviles ’24, a neuroscience and psychology double major, took the course and for his honors thesis is doing a study with current students that examines the transformative impact of the course.
“The interdisciplinary approach of this contemplative studies class provided multiple gateways to learn the language to deeply understand our inner experience and how to cultivate a meditation practice,” Aviles said. “I don’t think that we are commonly taught these skills in our non-stop society and view them as an invaluable tool to positively shape my own life and the community around me.”
Students are encouraged to think critically to help understand the connections between meditation practice and worldview, as well as current cultural understanding of wellness in the context of many different historical traditions. At the same time, they’re engaged in their own meditation practices individually as well as in a Friday lab led by McLaughlin.
Anne Ryan Gareis ’25, majoring in English and religious studies and serving as a Wellness Ambassador, emphasized the unique bond that students in the class shared.
“What we eventually came to recognize was the sense of vulnerability that we were all able to tap into over the semester,” Gareis said. “I found myself compelled to share personal experiences or bring in random facts of information that were unique to me and my background. And every time someone else did the same, I was always so excited to hear what they had to say.”
Students carry on that conversation while learning a practice of awareness that they can carry forward for lifelong, beneficial use. McLaughlin said he has learned and grown from both teaching the course material and leading the meditations.
“The profound learning experience comes from the conversations that I’m having with W&M students,” McLaughlin said. “Those at the table come from not only very diverse backgrounds but are also coming from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Perhaps a STEM content reflection may trigger someone from the humanities to enter the conversation in resonance with whatever was being shared from a completely different perspective.
“Specifically, one of the neuroscience students was speaking, and it reminded Anne Ryan of transcendental literature from Thoreau and Emerson. And suddenly literature was being put in conversation with neuroscience. And that is the essence of liberal arts and we’re all learning from that. So being at that table is a fantastic place to be for everyone.”
Jennifer L. Williams, Communications Specialist