Western law students being taught how to relax

'This is probably the most incredible learning experience I have ever witnessed in my 23 years of being an academic'.

University now offering a one-of-a-kind course on mindfulness meditation to first year students

Western University in London, Ont. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

It's an annual rite of spring on university campuses — exam stress.

Yet, perhaps defying the odds, almost two dozen students at Western University's Law school aren't tearing their hair out. They are meditating.

"If you can focus just on the present, your thoughts are not focused on the future, our to-do list or regrets about the past," said Thomas Telfer, a law professor at Western and the man behind a new mindfulness meditation course.
Thomas Telfer is a professor of law at Western University. (London Morning)

Students have responded.

"When my mind is racing on the days the to-do list seems too long, the mindfulness meditation allows me to reset and refocus my mind," said first-year law student Kelsey Vicary.

"We have a practise called a "Take 5 breath," which I use almost daily when my mind is racing and I'm having trouble remaining present," she told CBC News.

Telfer came to his own enlightenment the hard way. He first encountered the power of meditation while hospitalized for depression, and said he was impressed by the research showing it can help with both depression and anxiety.

Stress high amongst lawyers

Research suggests that lawyers are at much higher risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse than the broader population, and may be even more susceptible than those in other high-stress professions, such as medicine.

A 2012 survey by Ipsos Reid found that 58 percent of lawyers experienced stress or burnout, about half suffered from anxiety.

Telfer says he was amazed by the interest when he first emailed students about the pilot program.

"Within an hour, the course was filled," Telfer told CBC Radio's London Morning. 

Since the fall session concluded, a survey has shown students report an increased ability to calm down and reduce stress.

"Instead of focusing on a negative thought and letting it manifest, mindfulness has helped me to take a step back and let that thought pass by," said Western law student Daniel Park. 

"I also found the group setting of this course to be beneficial because it was a healthy reminder that I wasn't the only one struggling with certain negative or stressful thoughts," he said. 

Telfer also sees more positive engagement by those who "are willing to share things that they would not otherwise share in a law school course."

Hope is to have mindfulness course for other faculties

Professor Telfer is now on a mission. He has recently received a teaching fellowship to study mental health and mindfulness education. And he dreams of expanding the concept to all faculties.

The rewards, it seems, work both ways.

"This is probably the most incredible learning experience I have ever witnessed in my 23 years of being an academic," said Professor Telfer. "The statements students are making are incredibly powerful and I learn so much from the students."