Bernie Rhie leads Zen workshop

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On Tuesday evenings, most students at the College are knee-deep in work at Sawyer or Schow. Even so, it is not uncommon for the meditation room in the basement of Thompson Memorial Chapel to be filled to capacity.

On Tuesdays at 8 p.m., Associate Professor of English Bernie Rhie leads a workshop called “Intro to Zen.” A typical session consists of a 15-minute guided meditation, half an hour of lecture and discussion on a Zen-related topic and 15 minutes of silent, unguided meditation. Topics have included processing difficult emotions and thoughts, forming meaningful connections with other people and navigating the complexities of identity. Each week, Williamstown community members have been taking time to join Rhie for spiritual reflection and discussion.

The sessions make up a 10-week series that began at the outset of the semester. They routinely draw a group of around 20 attendees made up of students, faculty and Williamstown residents. Fernanda González ’22, a regular attendee, said she was drawn to the program after hearing positive words about Rhie. “I have found these sessions helpful in my everyday life in the sense that I am more aware of my surroundings, and I’ve started to pay more attention to the people around me,” she said. “I’ve also been more mindful of my emotions and how I deal with them. The meditation sessions have been an eye opener for me because they have made me realize the interconnection between other people and me.”

Rhie, who studied meditation at a Zen center in Santa Rosa, Calif., decided to lead the series after first incorporating the practice into his teaching. Having observed the benefits that his students experienced from meditation, he began to offer instruction that was not restricted to a classroom setting. “I’d been away for two years at this place called Berkshire School,” he said. “It was a two-year leave, and at the request of a student there I had helped him start a meditation club… That was really nice. It reminded me of how nice it was to sit with other people.”

This fall, Rhie taught ENGL 312: “Zen and the Art of American Literature,” for which he led some meditation. “That wasn’t the focus of the class, but it was an important part of it, and that felt really rewarding,” he said. “I saw a really positive transformative effect it had on a number of students in that class … and I think that’s when I thought, ‘After this class is over, maybe I’ll offer a different kind of class [that is] just open [to anyone].’”

In addition to the workshops, Rhie also works to bring Zen to campus in other ways. Earlier in the semester, he invited Ken Kessel ’74, a monk in the Korean Zen tradition, to give a talk  on campus and lead a meditation session. Collaborating with Rabbi Seth Wax, the College’s Jewish chaplain, Rhie also led a meditation retreat at the Jewish Religious Center before the start of the spring semester. 

Rhie sees his work as part of a larger push among faculty and staff to bring mindfulness practice to campus. “I think I’m not alone at all on the faculty or the staff,” he said. “I think Seth in the Chaplain’s Office and JJ [Storm] in religion and a number of other people … a lot of us feel that contemplative practice in general – meditation, mindfulness, Zen – have a lot to contribute to what you might broadly call ‘well-being’ on campus. I think Wendy Adam in IWS [Integrative Wellbeing Services] is doing really important work bringing mindfulness in other ways to campus.”

The “Intro to Zen” series as it was originally planned will have its final session this upcoming Tuesday, but Rhie does not see this as the end of his efforts to bring Zen to campus. Because of the high level of interest in the series, he is considering extending it and looking into other avenues for teaching meditation practice.

“I set a 10-week [plan] at first, partly because I just had no idea what demand or interest would be like,” he said. “Actually, I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there’s been this many people turning out this regularly. It makes me think that it would be worthwhile to continue offering something… And then definitely, I think, there’s really a lot of room for more retreats and other kinds of things.”