Students sing bhajans (hymns) while encircling the Icons with a ghee-lamp in the Hindu ritual of aarti, which asks God to bless the devotee’s heart and mind with love and compassion.

Title:Breathing Space

Author: Sara Piccini
Date Published: September 28, 2022

“You need to give yourself those opportunities to just stop.”

“In this day and age, we’re always listening to respond. We often don’t take time to really hear what people are saying,” he adds. “It was a breath of fresh air for all of us.”

In addition to promoting interfaith dialogue and exploration, Press Pause—as its name suggests—provides the opportunity for respite from the hectic pace of everyday life. Sessions are scheduled at the close of the day, from 5:15 to 6 p.m., when participants can quiet their phones, laptops, and racing minds for a few brief moments.

Student leaders as well as participants find the sessions to be an oasis. “Press Pause is work in a sense—I can be very stressed about it,” says student leader Paige Plucker (C’23). “Then I get there, and say, ‘Oh that’s right, this is all about centering myself,’ and then I feel at peace.

“You need to give yourself those opportunities to just stop.”

Finding commonality, honoring difference

Press Pause, officially launched in 2019, grew out of an earlier Campus Ministry program called “Many Faces of Meditation,” held at the John Main Center for Meditation and Interreligious Dialogue on the Georgetown main campus.

“We wanted to be really careful about appropriation, so we moved away from using the term meditation unless it is specifically the practice that we’re doing in an individual session,” says Diana Brown, Campus Ministry’s assistant director for interreligious engagement, who oversees Press Pause.

“The emphasis on contemplative experiences has allowed us to think more broadly, to include meditation, music, prayer, chants, and sometimes contemplative forms of text studies, like the Ignatian Examen, for example,” Brown says. “We try really hard to let Press Pause be a space where we feel like we’re sitting at the feet of actual, living historical communities.”

Brown and her team are careful to strike a balance, making sessions accessible to all participants regardless of their faith backgrounds, while at the same time respecting the depth of each practice.

“Press Pause honors difference as a way to reveal the complexity and the texture of how spiritual exercises are part of every tradition,” says Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., vice president for Mission & Ministry. “In that regard, it’s very Ignatian—trying to find the analogies, the similarities, but also appreciating the differences.”

Another hallmark of Press Pause, Brown explains, is the experiential aspect of the program. “We wanted participants to be able to walk into a room and hopefully have a somewhat transformative experience, so that they feel differently when they walk out. That is really the baseline goal of Press Pause.”

During the pandemic, when sessions were virtual, the Press Pause team maintained the experiential element, rebranding the program as “Press Play” and including creative activities such as photography, poetry, journaling, and creative writing.

The shift back to in-person programming in Spring 2022 enabled Brown to introduce another innovation: holding sessions in a variety of spaces across the Georgetown campus in addition to the John Main Center. These include the Jewish gathering space Makóm, the Islamic Masjid, Copley Crypt Chapel, the new Dharmic Meditation Center, and the newly named Servant of God Sr. Thea Bowman Chapel.

“It creates a richer, more meaningful experience,” Ho says. “There’s something about smelling the incense, or being in a space with particular lighting, listening to the music being played, feeling the coolness of the air on my skin, that is unique and special.”

Music often plays an integral role for the Press Pause program, such as this session on Sikhism with Divjot Bawa (SFS’23) playing the sarangi.
Music often plays an integral role for the Press Pause program, such as this session on Sikhism with Divjot Bawa (SFS’23) playing the sarangi. | Photo: Phil Humnicky

Scent and sound

As Ho notes, the diversity of programming and venues offered by Press Pause encourages participants to engage all their senses—appreciating the sights, scents, and sounds that are integral to most religious and spiritual practices.

Student leader Sargun Kaur (SFS’23) recalls a particularly memorable session held during her freshman year: a Navajo smudging ceremony, which involves the burning of herbs such as sage and sweetgrass for spiritual cleansing.

“Being an international student from India, I knew very little about Native American communities,” she says. “To be able to really immerse myself in a practice, in a way that I don’t think any other opportunity on campus would have allowed me to do, was really valuable to me. Learning about how the Navajo really tie their spirituality into nature offered a different lens on faith.”

This spring, Kaur joined in sharing her own Sikh faith with the Georgetown community in a Press Pause session held at the Dharmic Meditation Center, “Experiencing Naam through Sikh Music and Sound,” led by student Divjot Bawa (SFS’23) and organized by Katie Ho.

“Our form of meditation is to close our eyes and remember the name of God—‘Naam’ in Punjabi means ‘name.’ Divjot incorporated music, which is integral to how we practice our faith,” Kaur says, explaining that Bawa played a Sikh instrument called the sarangi as the group engaged in the meditation practice.

“We had one of the largest turnouts of the semester,” she adds. “The knowledge that there were people out there interested in learning about the Sikh community was so rewarding.”

Music was also central to the spring session “Chanting and Reflecting on the Attributes of God,” held during Ramadan and led by Imam Yahya Hendi, director of Muslim Life, and resident minister Iman Saymeh.

“Sister Iman has an incredible voice,” says Paige Plucker. “As she sang, I felt the sense that my life is bigger than school, that I have all I need here, that God loves me and I’m okay. It was a profound moment.”

dahlgren chapel
Photo: Phil Humnicky

Visual cues

Plucker had the opportunity to help design two Press Pause sessions featuring Catholic contemplative practices, as well as an Orthodox Christian session with resident minister Abigail Dean. “One thing that Diana [Brown, of Campus Ministry] had us do purposely was to choose faith leaders who were not from our respective religions,” says Plucker, a member of Georgetown’s Jewish community.

For her program, Dean selected the Orthodox contemplative prayer “Grant Me to Greet the Coming Day with Peace.”

“I chose that particular prayer because it’s part of my morning prayer rule. I stumbled on it, either at the end of college or in seminary, and it just blew me away. I thought the words were just beautiful,” she says. “It was almost certainly written by female monastics, which I also love.

“I wanted to share it with students—I feel that if you can only say one prayer, it has everything you could possibly want in it.”

Dean explained to the group that an Orthodox prayer service is meant to be a very sensory experience, with iconography, incense and candles, chanting, and movement of the body. “In the Orthodox Church, the physical is a part of God’s creation. The concept of personhood is both body and soul,” she says.

Dean’s elucidation of the newly installed Orthodox iconography in Copley Crypt Chapel—a gift from Michael (B’89) and Robin Psaros (Parents’21)—was especially meaningful to the participants, few of whom had been in an Orthodox Church previously.

“People loved it,” says Plucker. “They were so engaged, they asked a ton of questions afterwards. Everyone was kind of in rapture.”

“Once you know the code, it makes each space feel like home no matter where you are in the world.”

Dahlgran Chapel of the Sacred Heart has been the university’s main chapel since 1892.

“Iconography is our sacred art,” Dean says. “It was something I really wanted to share with the group, so that if they ever go back to an Orthodox space they’ll have a sense of how to read it. When you walk in the door, for example, the icon that’s in the pedestal tells you what’s going on that day—what feast day we’re celebrating, what season we’re in. You get these helpful visual cues,” she explains.

“By the altar, you always have Christ on the right and the Theotokos, Mother Mary, on the left. Christ is always in blue, Mary is always wearing a dark burgundy red and has three stars on her robe. Then to Christ’s right you always have St. John the Baptist. And to the left of the Theotokos is typically the patron saint of the chapel you’re at,” Dean says.

“Once you know the code, it makes each space feel like home no matter where you are in the world,” she adds. “It reminds me a lot of my mother’s mantelpiece above the fireplace that’s filled with photos of our family members.”

people praying
Photo: Jordan Silverman

Movement as spiritual exercise

During her session, Dean invited participants to engage in prostrations—kneeling and touching the head to the floor—highlighting the importance of physical movement along with sensory experiences in Orthodox Christianity and many other faiths.

In the final Press Pause session of the spring semester, participants were invited to join in a Zen Buddhist Mahasati movement meditation, led by student Yanlin Wu (C’24) and organized by Sargun Kaur. Wu, an international student from China and current president of the Georgetown Buddhist Student Association, leads a regular Friday night meditation session in the Dharmic Center.

“Because it was during finals, I thought we should switch up the vibe a little,” Wu says. “The Mahasati meditation involves following a set of movements of the hands. It’s easier than a guided meditation, especially for beginners.

“You feel in that moment like there are so many connections between us.”

“It’s fun and relaxing, and also helps with concentration,” she continues. “It’s something they can adopt for studying. For example, they can meditate on the movement of their hands while they’re writing to keep themselves focused.”

Wu was surprised that about a dozen people came to the session, despite it being held during exam week. “One person said, ‘I really felt like my life calmed, and all the stress of finals went away. I want to pursue this kind of peacefulness more,’” she relates. “I felt glad that the meditation led him to explore something new.”

She also was pleased that participants came from a variety of faith traditions—Christian, Hindu, Sikh. “It was interesting to see how Buddhist meditation was resonating with them, and how they found similar ideas in their own religions and cultures. You feel in that moment like there are so many connections between us.”

Just Breathe

Diana Brown and the Campus Ministry team hope to see Press Pause continue to grow and evolve. “The secret sauce is keeping it a consistent, relatively low-key affair,” Brown says. “We don’t want to lose sight of the goal of Press Pause—being an accessible space that allows everyone to just show up, walk in, and be who they are.”

Plucker adds: “My message would be, if you are an undergrad, graduate student, faculty or staff member, we’d love to have you. Like everyone else, you deserve a chance to just breathe.”

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