After dinner and before their late-night studying, a few students meet in the Buck Center’s meditation room Thursday evenings for a conversation quite different than the ones they likely had earlier in class or in the dining hall.
Sitting on purple pillows piled on the floor, the students talk about their spiritual lives – covering ground such as dreams, journeying, myths and prayer. While they may bring up personal experiences, they often approach the subjects analytically, asking questions such as, “What is prayer, and how does it extend across different religious traditions? And can a higher power be a creative force you connect with?” Coral Sandler ’12 said, in way of examples.
Sandler founded the group, called Circle, in the fall of 2010 to foster a spiritual community on campus, she said. In the rigorous academic environment of a small liberal arts college, Sandler said she’s found that spirituality, or wellness as she also describes it, is often overshadowed by other intellectual pursuits.
Besides weekly meetings, the students in Circle have gone on two overnight retreats to Bowdoin’s Coastal Studies Center. Chengying Liao ’15, a Circle regular, also recently started a mindfulness breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. on Wednesdays. Students start their day at Moulton Union with a meditation, followed perhaps with a period of focused eating to dwell on the food and the act of eating. “We’re trying to provide more opportunities for students to slow down and be mindful,” Sandler said.
Circle has reached out to different faith groups on campus, and student leaders from the Muslim Student Association, Catholic Student Union, Bowdoin Christian Fellowship, Hillel and the new Progressive Christian Group have all participated in Circle events, along with atheists and agnostics, according to Sandler. What Circle offers is a community for students who may not strongly identify with a particular religion, but who are still seeking answers for questions of purpose and meaning.
“She saw a need on campus,” Margaret Hazlett, senior associate dean of student affairs, said, praising Sandler as well for co-leading a successful yoga club her sophomore year. The classes became so popular that Bowdoin incorporated them into its wellness offerings for the entire college community. Last fall, Sandler also brought Donna Freitas, a professor of religion and author of Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses, to speak at Bowdoin.
Sandler also worked with Bowdoin to bring on board Nanci Adair, the college’s first spiritual life intern. Adair advises Circle and has worked with Sandler and other Circle participants to develop interfaith activities on campus. She works as a psychotherapist at Mercy Hospital’s Recovery Center, and will be ordained as an interfaith minister by the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine this spring. “I think Circle gives students a sense of community outside the day-to-day grind of college,” Adair said. “This is a little aside from academics and is focused on daily spiritual life.”
After spring break, Adair and the Circle students are planning a meditation flash mob somewhere on campus. As a group, they’ll simultaneously sit down and begin meditating, with the hope that others join them. “I hope it reminds students to pause,” Adair said. “At this time of year everything gets revved up, especially for seniors who are finishing their entire college experience. … I hope it reminds students that they can take this pause anytime, any place, in the middle of Smith Union, or in their room in the morning.”
While Adair and Sandler lead some of the Circle meetings, all the participants of Circle are invited to guide a session. Imelda Ko ’14 led the last meeting, focusing on journeys. Other students have led discussions about nature, music, self-confidence and more, Sandler said.
While Sandler admits she started the group in part to create a support network for herself, she hopes the group continues and that Bowdoin’s spiritual-life community only continues to strengthen after she graduates. “It was me following my path, and this is what unfolded for me during my time here,” she said. “But it’s also about me giving back and trying to create more means of support for students in the way I needed.”