Mindfulness for Millennials

Koru offers a new approach to mindfulness tailored to emerging adults.

Posted Apr 24, 2018

When I started meditating in the mid-1990s, I had only a vague and somewhat distorted notion of what meditation entails, and I had never even heard the word, “mindfulness.” Today, of course, meditation has become mainstream, and millions of people practice mindfulness to keep themselves focused on the here-and-now, manage the internal chatter that feeds their stress and anxiety, and help them maintain emotional balance in their busy, complicated lives. One of the ironies about meditation, as almost every meditator will attest, is that people have the greatest difficulty making time to meditate at precisely those times at which they need it the most.  As life gets busier and people become more stressed-out, they have less time and energy to take care of themselves. 

This paradox is one of the reasons that emerging adults – those between the ages of 18 and 29 – often find it difficult to establish a meditation practice.  Emerging adulthood is a particularly busy and stressful period of live, filled with many new roles, life-changing decisions, and uncertainties, and often accompanied by substantial stress and anxiety.  Yet, young adults often feel that they don't have the time or energy to devote to taking a mindfulness course or establishing a regular meditation practice.

Since Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1990s, most mindfulness classes have been based on the highly-successful MBSR model.  Traditionally, mindfulness classes meet two hours per week for 8 weeks and require their students to practice meditation for a minimum of 30 minutes per day for the duration of the course, as well as to participate in a weekend retreat at the end. 

In their work with students at Duke University, Drs. Holly Rogers and Margaret Maytan found that college students often had neither the time nor the patience to commit to that sort of obligation.  So, Rogers and Maytan began to experiment with alternative ways of introducing young people to mindfulness in a shorter format. After trying many permutations, they settled on a 4-week course that involved a 75-minute class each week, with a minimum meditation commitment of only 10 minutes per day.  They named the new course, Koru, a Maori word that refers to the shape of an unfurling fern frond, an apt metaphor for early adulthood.

Fiddlehead fern; in public domain per U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service copyright policy
Source: Fiddlehead fern; in public domain per U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service copyright policy

Traditional meditation teachers were understandably skeptical that students could gain much, if anything, from such a short exposure to mindfulness.  And even Koru's proponents might agree that a 4-week class is not likely to go as far toward helping people develop mindfulness skills as the traditional longer format. Still, there’s much to be said for giving young people who would not even consider enrolling in an MBSR-style class the opportunity to learn about mindfulness and to test-drive a number of meditation exercises. A 4-week class is certainly sufficient to introduce students to the basics, preparing them to continue meditation after the class ends.  Indeed, a randomized control trial of Koru published in the Journal of American College Health showed that the class produced beneficial reductions in stress and sleep problems, while enhancing mindfulness and self-compassion.

In my ongoing efforts to nudge people toward a less egoic, self-centered approach to life, I participated last summer in a 3-day workshop to learn to teach Koru, and, during the past year, taught three Koru classes to students at Duke.  These students, who ranged in age from 19 to 28, signed up for the typical reasons that most people first decide to try meditation – to reduce stress and anxiety, to quiet their minds, to deal with insomnia, and to develop a calmer approach to life.  And my sense is that most of them came away from the class convinced – by both what they learned about mindfulness and by their personal experiences with meditation – that practicing mindfulness moved them toward these goals

In the weekly “check-in” that started each class meeting, students shared both their struggles with mindfulness and their perceived success in starting to manage the self-thoughts that maintain many of their inner struggles.  A few quickly became deeply immersed in meditation and progressed quickly, but most simply got a glimpse of the benefits of mindfulness and learned a set of skills that they can continue to practice and develop. Some will probably not continue to meditate, their curiosity satisfied, but they now know that the practices are available should they want to return to them later.

To date, more than 500 instructors have been trained to teach Koru, and thousands of students at colleges and universities across the country have taken Koru on their campuses.  And, it’s becoming obvious that the abbreviated, 4-week approach to mindfulness appeals to people of all ages. Koru is also being taught to adults of ages in community centers, churches, libraries, YMCAs, yoga studios, and wellness centers.

For those of you interested in learning more about Koru, I refer you to the Center for Koru Mindfulness web site and to the publications listed below.

References

Rogers, H., & Maytan, M. (2012). Mindfulness for the next generation.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Rogers, H. B. (2016). The mindful twenty-something.  Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger.

Greeson, J.M., Juberg, M., Maytan, M., James, K., & Rogers, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of Koru: A mindfulness training program for college students and other emerging adults. Journal of American College Health. 62:4, 222-233.  Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4016159/