In a week full of midterms and bitter walks of single-digit-degree weather, I stumbled upon a reflection room at the back of the third floor of the Michigan League. The space was 18 feet by 8 feet, white stucco walled, and barren, besides three faded-orange armchairs and two square coffee tables shoved against the right side of the narrow room.
The Statement is The Michigan Daily’s weekly news magazine, distributed every Wednesday during the academic year.
I paused in the doorway thinking for a moment that I had been mistaken, that I had read the placard on the wall wrong, that I had stumbled into an unused office instead of a reflection room — a place I read about online and imagined with large windows stretching across the walls, decorated carpets, live plants and designated, almost illustrious, places to sit.
After re-reading the placard on the wall I made my way inside and slouched, backpack still strapped to my back, coat still trapping my knees, into one of the armchairs. The orange fabric was ripped and peeled back, exposing the fleshy, fluffy insides of the chair’s center cushion. The singular window in the top corner or the room let in a ghostly white light from the grey sky that day.
Reflection rooms are advertised on the University’s Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs portion of the student life website. There are eight on campus. Each is intended for any University community member, of any or no religion, to reflect, meditate, or pray.
I sat in silent for some minutes, phone tucked away in my coat pocket untouched, eyes open but vaguely blurred, not focusing on anything. I began to realize why the room was intentionally so simple. The empty walls and limited lighting grew on me: the room’s minimalism halted my outward observance of my surroundings. The window was so high up the wall and so small that there was no view to look at, nothing to distract.
Though there are thousands of types of meditation, most types involve the underlying concept that one must focus on the present moment and when outside thoughts come to the mind, as it is only human, acknowledge the thoughts, but then set them aside.
As I began to meditate, I failed at it — being present in the moment and not focusing on other thoughts besides those of being present — and instead became consumed by the idea of the controlled thought.
It came naturally to me that in meditation intentionally not thinking thoughts was a skill, a process and a useful tactic to reaching a meditative state. But what about beyond meditation? What about the constant thoughts we have in our everyday lives? Are expansive, curiosity-driven thoughts — ones I always believed to be a healthy part of growth and new thinking — at times misguided? Can they negatively control your brain’s efforts when focused on instead of appropriately set aside?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a therapy used to reinforce healthier thinking. When experiencing any event each of us has automatic thoughts. According to CBT thinking, these immediate thoughts are how we perceive situations in our world and they directly influence how we feel emotionally. When these thoughts are negative or twist the reality of a situation they can be unhealthy (so unhealthy they can lead to anxiety and/or depression).
In a University setting we are so often pushed constantly to think, think more, and think more again. In class discussions professors ask us to expand on our comment; in social settings, we are expected to challenge ourselves in the conversations we have with our peers; in student clubs, in writing academic papers, in writing anything, we inherently push and push at ideas. A concept we thought of as a small idea one day, the next day might expand into a research project, but is there ever a line crossed, a moment of more than needed? Is there a point where a new thought is just too much, is distracting rather than directing, is poisonous to our brain?
Though these questions seem to be naturally abstract and utterly lacking of concrete answers, sitting in the reflection room, it felt as if this room was one big, fat answer to these questions. Reflection rooms are times for self reflection, are spaces for controlling what most usually are uncontrollable thoughts, are spaces for sorting out the automatic, twisted thinking from the extensive yet directive thinking.