How I Became the Mindful Frat Guy
It all started in Benny’s class. I walked in with my cup of coffee, fully anticipating guest lectures and case studies. It was the first day of my final semester at UF, and I was eager to wrap this chapter of my life up and be done. Walking across the stage was to cross the finish line. A chance to shed the weight of my previous 22 years of being a pupil behind and enter the portal to real life. I signed up for this class because I heard this guy was inspiring and a great connection to have in my network. Right from the start, Benny looked at the class like he could see the dreams of every student. He laid it out there. No syllabus, no lectures, no tests.
“This is not a class, ok? This is a student run agency to build your fucking portfolio and actually produce some shit. You are going to have to lean in.” He listed out the clients our agency had, and I leaned in.
As I walked into Infinity Hall, the innovation and collaboration dorm right off campus, I immediately felt separation from my identity over the past four years. Frat guys go nowhere alone. We love squading up. It’s probably a confidence thing, or it could be that we like each other’s company. Being alone is to be vulnerable. It’s a constant conversation between the conscious mind and physical self. I walked past the receptionist, acknowledging him with a head nod and soft smile. I felt awkward when I spoke.
“Excuse me, where is the guided meditation meeting?” I almost laughed. I never thought I’d be saying those words. The rapid thoughts rushing through my head did not sound nearly as ordinary as “excuse me” felt coming out of my mouth. I walked down the hallway, admiring the 3-D printing lab, the engineering workshop and other creative spaces in the building. I reached Room 104 and peaked in. The full circle of folding chairs in a bare white classroom surprised me. The unexpected normalness was comfortable, but I was anything but. The client was Find Mindfulness, and I was trying to learn a lot about it.
Hesitantly, I walked in to the room, welcomed by the smiling faces of strangers. I sat down in a chair with two empty seats on either side of me. I didn’t want to get in anyone’s meditation space. Ignorance beamed from my awkwardness. There were nine people present, and no one was interested in conversation. It was comforting. Without knowing any of these people’s stories, I felt at ease with everyone in the room. Maybe it was because we were all there for the same reason. We didn’t have to talk about what each of us go through daily, because as soon as Payal told us to take three breaths and shut our eyes, whatever happened previously and our anxieties for things that are coming up, vanished.
Payal spoke clearly and softly. It was easy to trust her. She kept a steady 1…2…3…4… breathing count that became my rhythm for the next thirty minutes.
Have you ever noticed a thought? Not just the words that come out of your mouth, but the train of half sentences and complete ideas that cramp your mind and interfere with the absorption of everything that is present. They are constantly happening, whether you notice or not. Yet, while we are in the motion of daily life, we are so oblivious to the process of thought that we skip the steps of formulating exactly what we feel. The “oh yeah, that’s what I meant to say” type moments that happen to us constantly because we don’t take the time to listen, process that information, pause to let it settle, then respond. Instead, people instinctively react to what happens immediately, rather than taking the extra moment to ask what is felt. Mindfulness is all about the relationship an individual has with their thoughts, and meditation is the practice of acknowledging thoughts, but not reacting to them. Just simply noticing them in order to allow yourself to save it for a more appropriate time to deal with it, and instead, giving yourself the satisfaction of literally just being alive and present.
I don’t remember exactly what happened in that thirty minute session of nothingness. It seemed so quick, almost dreamlike. The lack of sight of what was happening around me was at first terrifying, but as I continued to concentrate on my 1…2…3…4… rhythmic breathing, the world in which I lived stopped. All I became was breath as I became one with myself. I noticed my heartbeat. I felt the tension in my shoulders. I noticed my clammy palms. I noticed when my heartbeat slowed, when my palms dried, and when my shoulders slumped. I noticed when I noticed, and I did nothing to change it. Payal reminded us that whenever we had a thought pass through, to just connect back with her voice and our breathing. It was an intense workout of the mind to stay focused on nothing, but when it clicked, I felt limitless.
We also learned to feel. After about 20 minutes of inhaling and exhaling, relaxation was a blanket over the room. Payal shifted our focus to love. Love for thyself, love for a loved one, love for a friend, love for someone you disliked, love for a group, and love for the world. It was painful. I didn’t necessarily want to gather all the love from the dark places within and push it on to the visual of my aging grandmother. I didn’t intend to face my decision from a year ago to break up with a girl I did not think I loved. I felt the buildup of tears, noticed the sadness, and returned to focusing on my breathing. It was sensational. Later that evening, I called my grandmother.
To wake, Payal had us take ten of the deepest breaths we could, then count to three and open our eyes. Like a feather that floats in the air and eventually hits the ground, it was sudden but gentle. I adjusted to the light like it had been there all along. Time did not exist. It was 6pm. I wished the clock was not hanging on the wall in front of me. I doubt anyone really remembers waking up after a night’s sleep. All of a sudden you’re awake and wishing you were not. However, opening my eyes after my first experience with meditation was an instant I now crave. My body was weightless still. I felt a sensation of tingles in my fingers and toes, I did not care to move. My mind was totally in tune with the present, while my body was tricked to thinking it was asleep. As I looked around the room, I felt a stronger connection with everyone present. We all just experienced something that none of us could describe, partially because it’s personal to each own mind, and partially because it turned out to be many of our first times.
Payal posed a question after the meditation. “What is your relationship with the present?” As we went around the room, searching for the right words to answer such a philosophical question, I learned that the guy two seats to my right and the guy two seats to my left had both also just experienced their first meditation. There was a community around me trying to cope with their own anxieties, but even a sub-community of college guys who are as new to this as I was, and as we answered the question, it seemed like we were repeating each other’s responses.
“I just go through the motions.” “College is not everything I thought it would be.” “I struggle to make the smallest decisions.” “I always am thinking I should be doing something else.” “I am graduating soon and I don’t know how to enjoy my time here with the unknown of what’s to come.” “I put my friends above myself.” “I have anxiety.” “I don’t know, I guess what she said.”
When I got home, I raved about the class to my roommates. They were interested. One actually closed his eyes, literally stood in the kitchen, and did not open them for 5 minutes. I tried to guide. I was hooked. Later, I went to the frat house to drink beer with some brothers. I described to them the time I had earlier that afternoon. My audience were my buddies. Together, we enjoyed to drink, watch sports, play video games, and party with girls. Nobody ever really asked anyone what they did when alone. That’s why my story intrigued the room. It was weird, and that’s why people respected it. I tried something new, while they repeated the motion of their Monday.
Over the next two weeks, I brainstormed a lot with my classmates, after all, it was still a class assignment. We were determined to change the attitudes of college students on the topic of meditation. We wondered if frat guys could be a niche, using my experience as reference. I lived in the fraternity house for three years, constantly surrounded by people and activity, rarely having time for myself. I was on the executive board, so really my life revolved around my fraternity. Groupthink and similar schedules rips identity away and replaces it with letters. Living in house, it was difficult to find myself. Distraction swallowed me. Whether it was a stimulus or depressant, a TV show or my iPhone, the future or my past. I know so many other people going through the same daily struggle of searching for meaning behind trivial activity. Everything seems so important while it is happening that nothing has meaning overall. How does this test actually impact my life? What’s the point anyways? Let’s just get fucked up. We hide from our insecurities with booze and comradery. As students, we are so focused on reaching destinations, as if graduation is a checkpoint in a video game called Life, or getting the perfect job is the trophy at the finish line of a race for success. Everything else in between is meaningless.
The more I am intentionally mindful, the more I realize how each moment is an opportunity to experience. Taking a couple seconds to process what is happening around me and how I feel internally has really helped me be more empathetic, productive, optimistic, and energetic. I am more engaged while I’m in conversation, and my need to escape reality by getting lost in a TV show or being blackout drunk has faded. Taking time to have a mindful moment and to build a relationship with the present is something that practicing meditation has helped reinforce.
I am not enlightened, though I feel lighter. I do not meditate daily or on any sort of schedule, though I know I would be better off if I did. I’ve been to two guided meditations now, both completely different from the other, but each providing relief and extended focus. The second one I went to was public on campus. It was guided by Elliot, who, instead of putting emphasis on breathing, instructed us to notice how each of the parts of our bodies felt. It was as if I could not pick my hands up, and the pressure between the chair and my butt seemed to spread to my lower back and down to my feet. I was a body of mass, sitting in the middle of campus. He painted a visual with his words. A still lake surrounded by mountains of trees. I was a leaf that fell on the water, and every ripple was another thought. Each ripple was brought to rest by my 1…2…3…4… rhythm I had learned from the session prior. I was only a leaf on a body of water. Leaf on water. Ripples and stillness. 1…2…3…4…
The three times I meditated by myself, I was not able to last longer than ten minutes, but it provided similar freedom. Opening my eyes continues to be my favorite part. Not because I don’t enjoy the silence of my own consciousness, but because the rush of life that sweeps through my body when I wake is the most refreshing high I’ve ever felt. After having the discipline and control to keep your eyes shut while awake, it’s relieving to open them. If meditation is like hot boxing your brain with dopamine, imagine waking up as all that pressure built up inside bursting out and leaving you like a cloud after it rains. Meditation is the sport of the mind. The long hot shower after a camping trip. The comforting phone call with Mom venting about the stressful week ahead. The nap time you dreaded as a kid but wish you had now. The opposite of substance. Zero distraction. You do not have to meditate in order to be mindful, but the practice of meditation will help you become more mindful. It is the gift of being present, and I look forward to the continuation of my search to find mindfulness.