Emerson’s community has a new resident ready to guide students through any spiritual or religious trials they may have. Harrison Blum began as the college’s Director of Religious and Spiritual Life & Campus Chaplain last week. Blum is an advocate for social justice, mindfulness, and meditation.
Before Emerson, he worked in spirituality—mainly in Buddhism—at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Franciscan Children’s hospital.
“With the arts and communications focus, [working at Emerson is] a little more up my alley in terms of personal interests,” Blum said.
Blum is an amateur filmmaker, an avid dancer, and loves to write, much like many students at Emerson. Blum spent six years creating a book about Buddhism and dance. The published book, Dancing with Dharma: Essays on Movement and Dance in Western Buddhism has 27 contributors from six countries.
“The wisdom developed by Buddhist practice fully matures when expressed through the arts,” Blum said.
This semester, Blum hopes to reach out and connect with Emerson’s Muslim community, as well as the rest of the student body, and create programming for those interested in mindfulness and meditation.
By expanding programming in the Office of Spiritual Life, Blum hopes to connect more with Muslim students. By purchasing Muslim prayer rugs and finding a space for students to practice their religion or spirituality, he wants to create a wider range of opportunities for Muslim students.
Blum also wants to expand programs that emphasize social justice.
“I certainly want to learn of what’s already happening on campus, and then hopefully support an increase in that understanding in action where our morals—our sense of meaning—bring us to take action in the world,” said Blum.
In the past, Blum has brought together spirituality and the arts by creating a program called “Breakin’ with Buddha,” which promotes meditation through dance. Rather than sitting on the floor, Blum brings the activity to the dance floor and uses dynamic movement to achieve physical awareness.
“Dance is a great way to bring people into physicality, into presence, into the moment,” Blum said. “And it’s also fun.”
Those programs, however, involve mostly instructional movement. He teaches certain movements that those attending will repeat, such as hip-hop steps. More of the work he does with dance involves contemplative movement and improvisation. The movements start out slow, then increase in intensity. The dancing then slows down and a reflection circle concludes the routine.
Blum is a strong advocate for guided meditation. Blum said that too often in meditation, one is focused on changing their experience or feeling while meditating, rather than being aware and present in the moment.
The difference, Blum said, is not to suppress the stress or the pain, but rather to experience it in a more comfortable place.
“One way to think about mindfulness meditation is making friends with our experience,” he said.
Blum compares the feeling of witnessing ourselves during hard times to the feeling of listening to a friend tell us about their own challenges. As Blum guides meditations, he stresses wholeness of the person, not the separation of good and bad.
Eric McAnulty, a freshman visual and media arts major, has already seen first hand what it is like to meditate with Blum at Emerson. McAnulty attended Catholic elementary school, but does not consider himself a devout Catholic. However, he is spiritual, with special interests in mindfulness and meditation.
McAnulty met with Blum after the Office of Student Success recommended him. McAnulty planned on simply learning more about the program, but Blum offered to meditate with him. It was McAnulty’s first time meditating with another person. The two sat on cushions in the reflection room, and Harrison walked McAnulty through a ten minute process of guided meditation.
The meditation Blum guided with Eric began with natural breathing. He then honed in on certain aspects of the body, such as breathing or specific parts of the body to create sensory awareness. The meditation usually concludes with a reflection on emotions, and more breathing while focusing on words for the in-breaths and out-breaths. A word is chosen to welcome on the in-breaths, and another to release on the out-breaths. For McAnulty, this whole experience is a way to relieve stress.
“If you’ve had a long day, and have been focusing on a lot of things, you can get frazzled...I think mindfulness resets that and gives you a clean slate,” McAnulty said.