Seminar talks zen practices in time for exams

In the sunny Esch Hurvis studio this Sunday, Nov. 11, students and community members gathered in a circle on yoga mats, chairs and meditation cushions to informally discuss zen and mindfulness with Religious Studies Professor Dirck Vorenkamp. Organized by Asia-A, the non-academic talk aimed to provide a way for students to ask questions of Vorenkamp and learn about relieving stress before ninth week.

For Asia-A’s Fall Term event, Sophomore Sophia Wang said they were looking for an event related to yoga or meditation, due to the stress of the last weeks of the term. “We were thinking that students could come to this event to look at their life from a different scope,” Wang said. In the end, she sought out Professor Vorenkamp, who specializes in Religious Studies courses on Buddhism.

The seminar centered on stories from Vorenkamp’s own life experiences with zen and stories relating to finding balance in the fast-paced world, in and outside of Lawrence. “Zen is a way to get back to what is often referred to in zen as the ‘true self,’ that inner child,” Vorenkamp said.

Seated on a meditation pillow in the circle, Vorenkamp spoke about what he calls an “epidemic” of unhappiness, anxiety and stress that is common in much of the world and is amplified at Lawrence.

“We are bombarded amongst other things with messages that have as their focus the idea that we need to be better, that we need to improve ourselves,” Vorenkamp said. “No matter how much we do, it never feels like enough. So of course we’re stressed, of course we feel anxious.”

His talk was based around three stories from being a professor at Lawrence and one from his life in general. The first was on a student who felt obligated to attend Lawrence but wasn’t happy. She is now a massage therapist.

“The question came up that if you could do anything you wanted to do tomorrow, forget about all of the ‘shoulds’ and‘oughts,’” Vorenkamp said about this former student. “Those are the kinds of notions that we hold on to in the way in which we try to convince ourselves to live lives that are really not our own.”

His second story was on a student who was so reliant on the outcomes of her grades that she could not turn anything in out of fear of a bad grade. His last story was about seeing grade school kids running through City Park. “They weren’t doing those things to get anything out of it, it was just a joyful expression of what they wanted to do.”

After his three stories, he opened up to questions from students. One attendee asked about tips for utilizing his thoughts and “not having enough time” to do things you enjoy. To the first question, Vorenkamp responded with learning how to “be still,” followed by a quiet sitting exercise different from meditation.

To another question on busyness with activities, he said, “Less is more…One of the things that can be very empowering is to learn to and to practice saying no.” Again, his last piece of advice was to do things out of an expression of who you are, not because you “should.”

“Going to seminar events, I find the things I learn the most from is probably not the academic aspect but more of what’s on the personal level,” Wang said. “I think that’s really important for an event, just because I feel like people will be more engaged, learn and benefit more and hopefully have it somehow impact their life.”

When asked about his own expectations and hopes for what students get out of his seminar, Vorenkamp said he “didn’t really have any” besides having a nice sunny space. However, many students left reluctantly from the studio and quiet “thank you’s” were mumbled. In the end, Vorenkamp stated, “I think what people get out of not just this [seminar], but essentially what we get out of life, is really up to us.”