Samuel Ekstrom, a junior at Central Michigan University, arrived at the Wesley Center in a black Jeep on a quickly darkening Thursday evening. He takes a small flat-screen television, a speaker, laptop, and pecans out of the back seat, along with his water bottle. Once everything is brought inside, he looks around the room. There are long, white folding tables placed around the space forming a square with padded chairs placed around them. It looks like a conference meeting has just taken place. The set-up of the room is too closed off, and will simply not work for the CMU Mindfulness club he leads.
In an untucked light blue button-down shirt, jeans, light green socks with a bird on each one, and shoes similar to slippers, he begins rearranging the room. The white tables are folded, stacked, and leaned against a wall. The padded chairs are taken down a couple of steps and stacked in a dark room in an orderly fashion. The room is now a bare slate. Worn, brown couches and white chairs with a floral pattern are brought up the steps and placed around the room in an oval facing a small table with a television set on it.
At 6:31 p.m., three women enter the Wesley Center. Each is greeted with a smile from Ekstrom. Most of the chairs and couches go unused this evening. Just one couch, and two chairs are put to use, but the mindfulness club is set to begin. Ekstrom sits on the floor next to the television, and suggests one of the attendees, Alaina Jaster, take notes for the meeting on her laptop. The group snacks on the pecans. He smiles as he explains what mindfulness is, before connecting his laptop to the television, and plays a video further explaining the meaning of mindfulness.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and explained on Ekstrom’s website for his club, “Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a non-judgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” At the meeting, Ekstrom said mindfulness has helped him with his anxiety, and ability to focus. The club focuses on three ways to achieve mindfulness, meditation, yoga and health through diet and exercise.
At the meeting a mission statement is discussed, and “students for mindfulness” is agreed upon, and Jaster types that message onto a flier she is designing for the club on her laptop to attract more members. She got to know Ekstrom through a class they had together. She said Ekstrom is “interesting and in tune with his surroundings,” along with, “smart, funny, friendly, and willing to get to know anyone who crosses his path. He’s a great friend.”
The mindfulness meeting ended with a five-minute meditation set to music, and afterward, Ekstrom went to his job tutoring on campus. He’s also worked as a lifeguard and boating instructor at a Boy Scout summer camp, at a camp for underprivileged inner-city kids and has worked as a registered nursing assistant, and in construction on concrete work. Ekstrom has progressed through the ranks of the Boy Scouts, achieving Eagle ranking. To reach Eagle rank, a Boy Scout must plan, develop, and lead a service project for any religious organization, school or community.
For Ekstrom’s Eagle Scout project, he removed about 200 of an invasive bush called autumn olive from a wildlife preserve. He then moved the bushes to another location to create habitats for wildlife. He teamed with his home town’s Rotary Club to work on the project.
Bridget Bryne met Ekstrom through Jaster at a Halloween party the two of them were hosting at their house. She didn’t know she had met Ekstrom until after the party because he was very committed to being in character as well as being in costume. “It was awesome,” she said. Ekstrom was dressed as Dr. Gonzo, a psychopathic lawyer travelling with an oddball journalist to cover a motorcycle race, from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
She said Samuel is, “a very thoughtful, enlightened person who truly cares about others.” She agreed that he’s a great friend, and added that he’s, “a great listener full of great knowledge, insightful advice and ideas.”
The CMU Mindfulness club has existed as a registered student organization since the middle of January, but Ekstrom has been involved with the idea of mindfulness for about a year and a half. He had a Buddhist tradition course with Guy Newland, one of the advisors for the club, which got him interested in mindfulness. Prior to this course, he was already interested in Eastern spirituality in general after traveling Hare Krishnas came to Central’s campus.
Ekstrom and his friend were sitting under a tree, and one of the Hare Krishnas walked up to him with “strange eyes like crystals,” he said. He handed them a Bhagavad Gita, which Ekstrom described as the “Bible for Indians.” Ekstrom read the book and said he wept because he was struggling with his own beliefs at the time. Samuel said people think the Hare Krishnas are a cult, and he agrees, but it doesn’t mean it’s a negative thing. “It’s a group of people living together who share a same set of beliefs,” he said. He’s stayed at Hare Krishna mansions in Michigan and visited a Chicago temple. When he visited the Hare Krishas, he chanted, danced, and ate vegetarian food with them.
There are several ways to meditate; the Hare Krishnas practice a mediation that leads to a dreamless sleep from a deep state of concentration. Satori is another, which is a mindful, enlightened state. Ekstrom said they are both fulfilling states, and practices both in his mindfulness club.
Professor Teresa Hernandez, the other advisor to the mindfulness club, said Ekstrom has put his heart into the group. “It’s unique to find a student who wants to lead in mindfulness,” Hernandez said, and “It’s good to have people work toward mindfulness.”
Hernandez and Ekstrom explained how to meditate at one of the group’s morning meditation meetings in Moore Hall. After the instructions, Ekstrom, Hernandez, and one other student silently meditated for 10 minutes. Three gongs sounded from Hernandez’s light yellow phone. This signaled the start of the meditation, and three gongs signaled the end. Participants looked in a general direction, not concentrating on any specific object, and when a thought came to mind, they had been instructed to recognize it and gently toss it aside. This allowed the meditators to be more present in the moment.
At another meditation meeting that week, the small group started with the sound of the gong again, but this time with the sound of flowing water playing from Ekstrom’s phone. This time, participants were to focus on the sound, but still toss aside other worries and cares to focus only on the noise in the room.
Ekstrom is involved in the Leadership Advancement Scholarship program at CMU, and it is required that he leads a student organization. After not finding an existing organization he was impassioned to lead, he decided to start his own with the mindfulness club.
In addition to his website, Ekstrom maintains a presence on social media using Facebook and Twitter. When Central Michigan University had a rare closing because of a snow storm on Feb. 25, Samuel not only communicated that the regularly scheduled meeting at the Wesley Center would be canceled, but also offered possible alternatives on Facebook for those interested to meditate on their own with apps on their phones. He also outlays the benefits of being mindful on these social media outlets such as fighting depression, and improving academic performance.
The CMU Mindfulness Club has mediation meetings in Moore 108 Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 11 a.m. There are also general meetings in the Wesley Center Thursdays at 6:30 p.m.
Chris Stevens wrote this article.