Mindfulness and Meditation Club Coming to PennWest Cal

Assistant Professor Michael Baranski Wants to Fill a Much-Needed Niche

Andrew Havens, Staff Writer

Dr. Michael Baranski sat in his small office in Morgan Hall, and leaned slightly back in his chair. As he stared at childrens’ drawings of superheroes taped onto his wall, the well put-together Assistant Professor of Psychology at PennWest California recalled hearing his students being interested in the concept of meditation, and how it could help their stress levels while working their way through school. Despite his individual interests, he wants this new club, hopefully forming in the fall semester, to be student-focused.

“People wanna do it, but there’s not a formal way to do it yet,” Baranski said, “so I’d be happy to advise that and be involved in that. There’s a lot of aspects of meditation beyond just mindfulness. I definitely have a core interest in mindfulness, but whatever the students want to do with it, whatever helps them the most.”

Fully engaged and fully present, Baranski leaned forward and sold his pitch on mindfulness to the student body.

“That’s the cool thing about it, you don’t have to be formally meditating to be mindful, you can do it at any point in your day,” Baranski said, “Just ask yourself, ‘what’s it like to be me right now?’. It’s accessible at any point in your life.”

Baranski’s path to PennWest Cal was not without its ebbs and flows. Earning his Ph.D at Kent State researching the cognitive benefits of mindfulness meditation, he eventually made his way onto campus three years ago. There was even a stint in pharmaceutical sales lodged in there along the way, which Baranski says he thoroughly did not enjoy. Now teaching all manner of psychology-based courses, Baranski wants to extend his outreach even further.

“I was interested in cognitive psychology, mostly. About things like thinking, learning, and remembering,” Baranski said, “and what initially interested me was the question of ‘could you improve any of those?’. Could you use mindfulness and meditation as a way to improve people’s attention span and focus?”

Meditation is the practice of training your own brain in the skill of awareness and presence. This can be done in seemingly infinite ways, but the health benefits are scientifically clear, something that Baranski did not forget to mention. Some may see the concept of meditation as purely spiritual and holistic, which Baranski certainly sees value in, and though meditation can have different meanings to different people, he likes to view it from a very scientific, empirical lens.

Now deep in thought, Baranski relayed his interests, and his worries, about the current generation.

“We are perpetually distracted,” Baranski said, with a tinge of disconcertment in his voice. “How can we notice that quicker and refocus faster to keep relevant information in mind? That was my initial interest in studying empirically.”

Hundreds of millions of people engage in meditation across the globe, and Baranski is no different. Though his motivation for starting the club was a mixture of different factors, Baranski never lost sight of the most important impact that he could have: the students themselves. Taking a moment of reflection, he tried to relay the struggles of some of his students.

“The biggest thing you hear most often is that people feel very stressed and anxious, nearly all the time.” Baranski said, “If you look at the data, rates of stress and anxiety have been rising over time. They seem to be getting worse and worse, and of course that gets exacerbated by things like social media and Covid.”

“It just seems like stress and anxiety are pretty ubiquitous for young folks. So I think that’s probably what a lot of people would come for, ya know? Maybe this is a tool they could use to reduce stress, that would be great.”

Baranski hopes to start this club in the fall, but for now the attempt lies in recruiting future members. Even with just starting to advertise, he’s already had major interest.

“Some in class, some in email,” Baranski said, “Once we reach 15 members, because you need 15 students to make a club, we’ll start the official paperwork.”

Even if he doesn’t break that threshold, which he expects to, Baranski isn’t going anywhere with his meditation and mindfulness advocacy.

“If we don’t get to 15 people, and students still want to meet and discuss mindfulness, then I’d be happy to do that informally too. I hope to reach it though, because if students are feeling stressed or anxious, and they see this connection, then it might help reduce those feelings. Plus, exploring your own experience is just interesting on its own.”

Any students interested in learning more should email Dr. Baranski at his PennWest email: [email protected]. You can also visit him in his office, located in Morgan 325. Look out for the Mindfulness and Meditation club to kick off in the fall of 2023.