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After five weeks in Dharamsala, India, Sarah Fleming ‘14 (Sharon, Mass.) and Izzi Speer ‘14 (Madison, Wis.) are Facebook friends with Buddhist monks—men who may have devoted their lives to embodying Buddhist philosophy but still can’t resist a good knock-knock joke.
These two psychology majors had shared some of the same Macalester lectures, but didn’t know each other outside the classroom until they discovered they were two of 24 students picked for Emory University’s Mind/Body Sciences Summer Program.
Emory chooses college students from across the nation to glimpse the vast chronicles of Buddhist philosophy as they study alongside monks who are in turn studying science. Later, the Tibetan monks will study science at Emory University in Atlanta. Speer was drawn to the program after taking religion professor Erik Davis’s Introduction to Buddhism, hoping to explore how religion and science interact. Fleming thought the program would feed her interests as a Religious Studies major, and as leader of Macalester’s Buddhist meditation group, Sitting at Mac.
Packing eight academic credits into five weeks made for some intense reading, writing, and discussion. Coursework explored how Buddhist concepts of mindfulness are being applied in Western medicine. To learn about traditional Tibetan Buddhism, the students meditated with the monks at 6:30 every morning. Speer got her first taste of Buddhist meditation, while Fleming built on a well-developed practice. “The only way to meditate is to try,” says Speer. “You just let your mind do what it does.”
From meditation and class readings, Speer learned that working toward having a calm, clear mind can improve one’s ability to regulate emotions and have good mental health. This lines up with both her majors: neuroscience and psychology.
Fleming is taking clinical and counseling psychology this fall. What she learned about cultural differences in approaching mental health problems “will probably shape how I look at the class,” she says. She hopes to someday counsel others through ministry or chaplaincy.
Enjoying unstructured time with the monks was one of Fleming’s favorite parts of the program, she says. She taught the monks American slang, shared stories over meals, and played badminton matches with them. Speer spent some time after the program traveling in other parts of India.
Both agree that one of the program’s most memorable moments was when they met the Dalai Lama himself, who presented the monks with certificates for completing the program. The Americans enjoyed hearing him speak and were able to ask him questions about Buddhism. “He has an amazing personality,” says Fleming. “Everyone in the room was hanging on his words.” The Dalai Lama approached the group with blunt honesty and a commanding voice, but also a sense of humor, she says.
“He believes all religions are geared toward compassion,” says Fleming, “and that our generation’s biggest responsibility is to dialogue among different types of people.”