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Weekly Meditation at CCI Open to Anyone on Campus

Communication Studies Distinguished Lecturer Megan Fields sits crosslegged, eyes closed, on a couch in front of a painting.

Megan Fields demonstrates how some meditate in the Message Effects room, where a group meets weekly for mindfulness and meditation.

Every Wednesday on the second floor of the Communication and Information building, the lights are dimmed and the voices of a handful of students, staff, and faculty go quiet for 25 minutes. The noises outside of the small, cozy room where they meet continue on, but that’s all part of the point, said Megan Fields, distinguished lecturer for the School of Communication Studies.

“We keep it simple, we don’t want it to be intimidating or scary. It’s not about clearing your mind, it’s about being the observer of what is going on in your body and your mind. Our world is so fast-paced and overstimulated, and this is an opportunity to pause,” Fields said. 

The meditation group was started by Communication Studies Professor Joan Rentsch about 10 years ago, as a result of a graduate-level mindfulness course she taught. Since then, she has also been teaching a special topics course to undergraduates that has evolved into a course she calls Mindfulness Foundations of Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Communication. Initially, Rentsch wanted to augment her team communication research by training team members in perspective-taking skills. A colleague suggested she explore Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as a means for that team training. Once she started looking into the research on MBSR, Rentsch realized it would be helpful in her research and pursued MBSR teacher training, and eventually certification. 

“One day, I let John Haas know I’d be gone for a week for MBSR training.  He asked more about it and then said, ‘Why don’t you teach this as a class? Teach mindfulness.’ I wanted to be sure he understood what it was about and told him, I might not require a book but I might require a yoga mat. He looked slightly surprised, but quickly replied, ‘I trust you.’ And that’s how it started,” Rentsch said, giving Haas (current Comm Studies associate professor and former director of the school) credit for being open-minded and encouraging her to start the class.

While some may have trepidations about the effectiveness of meditation and using it to teach a course about communication, Rentsch said the scientific research backs it all up. The course involves teaching students about mindfulness practices, and eventually they start to notice more about themselves as they practice.

“Once you develop mindfulness, you become aware of what’s happening in your own mind. So what do you do with that? What do you do with thoughts, or emotions that arise? In this class, we discuss how you’re talking to yourself, how you’re communicating intrapersonally, and once students are more comfortable with what is going on inside themselves, we discuss how that awareness affects their interpersonal communication,” she said.

She’s received lots of positive feedback from students who discover that mindfulness helps them focus, and Rentsch also points out that studies show students who meditate do better academically. The meditation group actually grew out of a request from graduate students who wished to maintain their meditation practice after taking the mindfulness course, she said. Then it just grew from there. Faculty and staff from the college and even other parts of campus began dropping by the mediation meeting to get a few minutes of mindfulness every week.

But, between Rentsch being injured in a car accident and the COVID-19 pandemic, the meditation group went through some hiccups before Fields picked it back up again. There are a handful of dedicated folks who almost always make it, and one of those attendees is Communication Studies Associate Professor Emily Paskewitz.

“Meditation is an awesome way to take a pause in your day to reset. By the time I get to Wednesday, I often feel overwhelmed with the week. But taking a half hour Wednesday to meditate and reset has been great for me,” Paskewitz said. “Meditation is, of course, part of that reset, but so is connecting with people from across campus. We’ve had people from education and human resources join us. So many times at the university we’re thinking in terms of departments, but the meditation group shows ways we overlap and can connect with each other. The meditation is great, and the connecting with other people is even better!”

Fields said there is a standing invitation for staff, faculty, and students to attend the meeting, and they can contact her via email at mfields1@utk.edu to get the schedule. Typically they meet only when classes are in session.

Like Rentsch, Fields is certified in meditation and mindfulness since 2019, and she’s enjoyed the opportunity to facilitate a time for people on campus to be mindful with her.

“We simply sit or lie down in silence and be with whatever comes. Mindfulness is about being present, so when we do that, it’s to simply focus on the breath. If there’s sounds in the hallways, we are just with the sounds that come, all of those things are an opportunity to strengthen our mindfulness. But mindfulness can be done in different ways, such as walking meditations, eating meditations, and so on,” she said. “Everybody is different, every single person who practices will find what works for them.”