There is a place where fast meets slow, where movement becomes motionless. Sarah Zerzan ’08 knows the place well. Every day after classes on biochemistry and gene structure, the willowy track star laces her shoes and heads south on Winter, across Mission, and into the 100-acre Bush Park, a few sprints from campus. Douglas fir and oak spread their arms, and needles cushion her footfalls.
“Running is the purest physical exertion,” says Zerzan, who was the fastest runner in NCAA Division III Cross Country in 2006. “It isn’t always good. Some runs feel terrible. But when I push myself to the limit and then push further and further, I get a heightened sense of my body. I take runs to get into the zone, to feel my muscles, to feel my blood. There are moments of clarity when it’s just you and your body.” Sometimes the faster Zerzan runs, the more her movement slows. Sometimes there is only pulse — then no pulse. If she runs fast enough, she slips into stillness.
Researchers see the human brain as the world’s last unexplored frontier.
The “zone” she refers to isn’t just for athletes. Every Friday, students, faculty and staff meet in Cone Chapel to explore mindfulness meditation with Nathaniel “Nacho” Córdova, rhetoric and media studies professor. They set backpacks against pews and arrange themselves on benches and floor while Córdova sounds a chime, crosses his legs and circles his hands. Light slants through stained glass windows as he gently encourages people to breathe out the endless trifling details that fill our days and to breathe in stillness. Sometimes the session is just an hour with an aching back, but sometimes mental talk slows, even ceases, and a student here or a staff member there finds the same place Zerzan runs to — the clarity of the present moment. Zerzan runs as fast as possible, Córdova sits as still as possible, and through motion and no motion, they arrive at the same place.
The place where mind and body meet is an increasingly intriguing locale for researchers, who see the human brain as the world’s last unexplored frontier. The authors of In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports analyzed thousands of accounts from amateur and professional athletes who reported altered perceptions of time and space, exceptional feats of endurance, states of ecstasy and moments of illumination. There is an unlikely calm that settles on skiers flying down nearvertical slopes, they say, and an effortless second wind that turns the exhaustion of long-distance runners into weightlessness.
Olympic hopeful Nick Symmonds ’06, who has sprinted from Willamette’s Division III to near-legendary status as one of the country’s fastest runners, says a complete mind-body focus takes over once he kicks off. “When I race I don’t worry about anything,” Symmonds says. “It’s a constant state of focus: Am I breathing too fast? Are my shoulders relaxed?” When he beat competitors at the 800-meter Prefontaine Classic, the pump of adrenalin pushed him past the pain into feelings of euphoria.
Meditation can be an aid for helping one simply slow down and appreciate life, to be connected with physical reality.
Scholars are still intrigued with a concept popularized by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990. Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow,” the optimal human experience that occurs when individuals direct sustained attention toward an activity, whether it’s painting, research or even walking. (The flow state is rarely achieved through watching TV — bad news for Americans, whose number one leisure activity is channel flipping. Our TV culture produces boredom and vague frustration, according to Csikszentmihalyi.) Flow, he says, requires total mental and physical immersion into an activity, but individuals are rewarded with the unlikely sensation of being fully relaxed yet fully energized at the same time. The present moment is all that exists, and hours slip away without notice.
Sometimes when one experiences flow, boundaries dissolve between self and surroundings, resulting in a loss of self consciousness and a feeling of transcendence. For practitioners of religious traditions, that means edging a bit closer to God. For Zerzan, it means becoming weightless — running on clouds. Córdova considers himself an atheist and doesn’t buy in to the “Aha!” concept of enlightenment, but after 10 years of meditation, he takes things slowly enough to pull out a cushion and a cup of tea for students who wander by his office.
Csikszentmihalyi and Córdova believe the quality of life is determined by how one learns to control and direct one’s inner experience. The Willamette professor came by his meditation practice after a hard run-in with an early midlife crisis. “I remember driving to work through a swirl of trees and blue sky, but everything felt gray,” he says. “Life had lost its purpose.” In his early 30s Córdova discovered meditation, and the practice called forth all the emotions he had repressed.
“Mindfulness meditation is the practice of paying explicit attention to the mind and body,” says Córdova, a layperson ordained in the Zen Buddhist tradition. “We take deep stock of ourselves. Some might believe that is narcissistic, but you have to begin within to find that you are ultimately connected with everything. Meditation is, in essence, the study of self to forget self.”
There are as many traditions of meditation as there are meditators, he says. Practitioners focus on a candle flame, follow the in and out of the breath, count to 10, envision the mind as a clear sky or send compassionate wishes to loved — and unloved — ones. Meditation can be a spiritual practice, but for millions, it’s simply a method to alleviate stress.
“It’s a spiritual thing for me,” says student Zan Frackleton ’09, “but not all people who participate do it for religious reasons. Meditation can also be an aid for helping one simply slow down and appreciate life, to be connected with physical reality.”
Student Jade Olson ’09, who joins the Friday meditations, says, “I don’t know how to be calm and relaxed anymore, and it scares me. I think it’s an issue many students struggle with.”
“A lot of things can drive us nuts,” Córdova says. “We’re seeing our society racing to an amazingly accelerated pace. There are many more stressors. The practice of looking deeply releases our hold on that anxiety.”
Research confirms his belief, with an increasing number of studies showing that mindfulness meditation — or the “relaxation response,” as it’s sometimes called — reduces stress and levels out mood disturbances. It also decreases blood pressure and heart rate, reduces pain from cancer or chronic illness, and reduces insomnia and fatigue. When University of Wisconsin researchers fitted Tibetan Buddhist monks and a control group with electrodes, they discovered meditation actually alters brain circuitry, producing the intense gamma waves connected to heightened mental activity and awareness.
I take runs to get into the zone, to feel my muscles, to feel my blood. There are moments of clarity when it ’s just you and your body.
Initial meditation experiences, even ongoing experiences, may seem mundane. “But when the body and the mind come together with a quiet focus, your breath will slow, your mind will eventually ease its constant chattering, and you’ll begin to feel a peace that lingers,” Córdova says. “I don’t like the language of “enlightenment,” but I do like the language of “transformation.” You see things with more clarity and realize you don’t have to give in to all that suffering. A contentment will follow you and bring you into the present moment, even in the classroom — a moment I think of as ‘only once.’”
Runner Zerzan experiences her “only once” every day in Bush Park. Like Córdova, she had a run-in with crisis; she was struck by a car in 2006, and her injuries left her unable to walk or run. “I don’t know much about bone structure yet,” the pre-med hopeful says. “I only know my muscle groups by injury, but I’m addicted to the endorphins, and so not moving made me feel lethargic and terrible.” Her father, Terry Zerzan ’78, who ran track at Willamette, encouraged her through an intense physical therapy regime. Injuries still fresh, she muscled her way back onto the track, competing in the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships. “To even go there after what happened to her was remarkable,” says Track Coach Matt McGuirk, “but she went there to compete. She ran a nearly perfect race, finishing 11th, just two seconds short of All-American status.”
Zerzan hopes to join Doctors Without Borders after medical school. For now, organic chemistry and cell biology classes are bringing body and mind together. “The science of running has given me a whole new level of awareness,” she says. “I’ve started to learn about these biological processes, and it’s incredible to think that these things are going on inside my body.
“Not being able to run last year made me aware of running, of living, of just moving. It’s such a gift.” For Zerzan, meditation — perhaps even some sort of enlightenment — is a soft trail in Bush Park, where the world slows even as she speeds up.
An old and deep practice of mindfulness meditation is to follow your breath. Sit in a comfortable position, and close your eyes if that makes you less likely to be distracted. Find your breath and follow its rhythm as it goes in and out of your body.
You may find that your mind wanders and you cannot remain focused on your breathing. When that happens, smile gently at yourself and bring your attention back to your breathing. It is important not to fight or berate yourself when your mind wanders. The practice of mindfulness is not about perfection, which is one of the reasons it is called a practice.
Next time you sit down to have a cup of coffee, take a few deep breaths and practice sipping mindfully, watching your breath between each sip and letting your body relax. You can practice mindfulness as you walk, do the dishes, take the trash out or stroke your pet. The idea is to be aware of the present moment by using your breath as an anchoring point. Allow these moments to serve as a wonderful respite and to bring you more in harmony with the here and now.
— Nathaniel “Nacho” Córdova
Exercise Science Professor Julianne Abendroth-Smith combines physical and scientific passions in her biomechanics research. A self-described cross between a nerd and a jock, she has hiked her way into newspapers around the country with her findings on the benefits of trekking poles. “When you’re sore after a hike, it’s not from going uphill,” she says. “It’s more from coming back down. That pounding on the body takes a toll. In biomechanics research you do the math, follow the physics and get an answer.” The Los Angeles Times and other newspapers have taken notice of her findings, and more trekking poles have showed up on trails thanks to enthusiastic publicity from hikers’ clubs.
Her colleague, Exercise Science Professor Peter Harmer, says the physical and psychological effects of Tai Chi support the concept of a strong mind-body connection. Harmer and Oregon Research Institute partner Fuzhong Li received a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote the benefits of Tai Chi among older populations. According to Harmer and Li’s research, the meditative, dance-like sequences not only improve cardiovascular health, balance and muscle strength, but also affect the mind — decreasing anxiety, alleviating depressive symptoms and improving sleep quality.
The state of flow requires mental and physical discipline, something Willamette pianist Jean-David Coen came to understand at age 5, when he began piano lessons. “By the age of 7 or 8, I had the understanding that music did something to me outside of my normal experience,” says Coen, who has soloed on stages in Paris and New York. “I got chills when I listened to Beethoven. Even watching Sandy Koufax, the great pitcher for the Dodgers, couldn’t do that for me.”
His colleagues, Music Professors Mike Nord and Dan Rouslin, got their chills on the high ridge of the Continental Divide, where they wandered 200 miles last summer with sleeping bags and tarps. “There’s an enlightenment, an awakening, that happens out there,” says Nord, an improvisational musician. “I want to bring that into my performances.”
Mind-body connections show up in other art forms as well. Theatre Professor Jonathan Cole leads students through sword fights on the Quad, drawing on his background in aikido, judo, jujitsu and karate for his stage combat courses. “Actors need the ability to commit to explosive action from a completely relaxed state,” Cole says. “Martial arts training instills an awareness and vitality of spirit that helps actors perform fearlessly in the moment on stage.”