Skip to content

Getting Zen with It: Mindfulness as Mental Health Treatment in Kyoto

As the reporting rate for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression continue to rise among university students, young people are increasingly looking to mindfulness techniques found in cultures around the world for assistance. Japan—which has a long tradition of meditation and mindfulness that has proved an effective means of treating the symptoms of certain mental health conditions—was the perfect place for voyagers to explore the question of if meditation was a real treatment or simply a case of cultural difference in mental health treatment.

Students enrolled in Abnormal Psychology with Professor Carol Enns tackled this question during a field class to Zen Buddhist cultural sites in Kyoto, Japan.

“My goal for this field class is for you to really experience meditation and zen practices. There is a lot to be learned from an experiential education model so I don’t want to over prepare you for your experience,” Professor Enns told her students as they made their way to the Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto, Japan.

The head priest of Shunkoin Temple, Reverend Takafumi Kawakami, greeted students before leading them into a tatami-mat filled meditation studio. He discussed effective ways of practicing meditation and mindfulness while also addressing modern concerns about meditation, such as its widespread adoption in the U.S. as part of larger wellness trends. He then led students through a silent meditation to show them the technique in practice.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm a neuroscience major so this was a great opportunity to learn about a different technique for brain health,” said Emma Grubbs, a student from Colorado State University. “I don‚Äôt have to respond to every temptation and I can find peacefulness inside myself by simply breathing which can just slow everything down and make unpleasant feelings go away.‚Äù

After the meditation lesson, students visited the famed Kyoto zen rock garden Ryoanji. Performing zen arts, such as rock gardening, calligraphy, or ikebana, are meant to help focus the mind to cultivate awareness, a key skill when preparing for meditation.

“The biggest surprise for me today was visiting the zen rock garden. It was beautiful to look at as a whole and it was very peaceful, but coming from an American background, I think a lot of people might say ‘It is just raked rocks. What am I looking at?’ Prior to coming here, I thought it would be more elaborate, but it was a happy surprise to see how simple it was in a very pleasant, minimalist way,” said Katie Lindsley of Chapman University.

Afterward, reflecting on the mindfulness practices they learned, students came away with an enhanced realization of the origins of meditation. “I always thought of mindfulness as a thing you do to ‘be happy’ like working out or something. But today showed me that it’s really a proactive way of living. We’ve stripped meditation of a lot of its context in the United States in order to commercially benefit but this is a life practice that Japanese people have done for a long time. I’m happy I got to see it in this context,” said Megan Hennessy of CU Boulder.

As students in Abnormal Psychology continue to compare different approaches to addressing mental health concerns, they will apply what they learned about the origins, benefits, and practices of Zen meditation. Their field class in Japan proved to be a positive opportunity for Semester at Sea students to put Zen Buddhism in a cultural context and reflect on the ways their cultures differ when it comes to mental health treatment.

As Lindsley noted, “Mindfulness has been shown to help with people living with depression and anxiety. Americans often think a pill is the only way to fix things, but this field class showed me that it doesn’t require any money to meditate so it seems like a purer way for people to live with these disorders.”


  • Education
  • Life on Land

Related Articles

Who’s On Board? Meet Dorcas, our Tutu Ubuntu Scholar
Read More
Semester at Sea updates Fall 2023 and Spring 2024 itineraries with new destinations on three continents
Read More
Spring 2023 Voyage: By the Numbers
Read More