This is the first story in a series about mental health on the Endicott College campus.
Walk into Rev. Dr. Gail Cantor’s office and step into a den of Zen on campus.
Incense wafts from the back of the chapel where Cantor maintains office hours when she’s not blessing campus beehives, overseeing a group meditation, or, as was the case last month, leading students on a shamanic journey.
“We all laid on the floor and went into a deep meditation with drum music,” she explained. “The drumming helps you go into a non-ordinary reality, in a sense.”
That non-ordinary reality is where Cantor thrives. As Endicott’s Director of Spiritual Life, Cantor helps students connect with themselves through spiritual practice—whether that’s via a traditional route or a more unorthodox one.
“It’s a different kind of conversation I have with students than a counselor has,” said Cantor. “A lot of the work I did in the past was about transitions, and so I end up really explaining to kids what they’re going through from a bigger life perspective.”
At times, that perspective can look quite otherworldly. For example, students who recently embarked upon Cantor’s shamanic journey received instructions on how “travel” to a place within their consciousness where they might meet and interact with a spirit animal.
“Then I tell them what to do when they meet one,” she explained. “They ask for guidance—either a specific question they have, or just in general. I try to teach them to keep the net open. If you have an opportunity to talk to a spirit animal, you don’t want to ask them, ‘When will I get a boyfriend?’”
A self-described hippie, the Brookline-born Cantor is also passionate about helping students discover mindfulness practices that not only help them slow down, but get in touch with what’s going on mentally.
Meditation and mindfulness on campus are nothing new, but they’ve garnered increased interest as students grapple with homesickness, academic stresses, and reconnecting with friends and faculty after months of separation, which “deepened an epidemic of loneliness” according to a recent Harvard study.
Cantor is not a physician and spiritual practice and mindfulness is no substitute for medical treatment. Still, studies show that meditation and mindfulness can enrich one’s quality of life with improved emotional regulation, stress reduction, decreased reactivity, enhanced memory function, and more.
“To me, everybody needs to slow down and come out of the reactive mode and be able to be responsive—and that takes practice,” said Cantor. “Mindfulness and meditation are ancient, but now they’ve proven that if you meditate for just 10 minutes a day, your brain starts to catch on and it quiets.”
For Cantor, mindfulness is everything. And for students, it’s a different kind of education.
A mindful mission
Even amid the ongoing pandemic, returning to campus brought back a sense of normalcy for Madison Smith ’22.
Still, resuming normal operations has still been an adjustment for the accounting and finance major.
“It’s harder for people to find time for themselves now that it’s go, go, go again,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed by what we can do now, and sometimes it’s hard to put myself first.”
Smith has worked with Cantor since her sophomore year, when she applied for a Chaplain’s Advisory Board Scholarship. That led to helping Cantor plan events, collaborating with different spiritual groups on campus, and eventually, a deeper interest in mindfulness and meditation.
“Gail used to host what we called a ‘Goddess Group,’ where we’d debrief, talk about our days, and that’s how I got more involved with meditation,” recalled Smith, who is from Thomaston, Conn.
Even during a recent internship with PwC, Smith was delighted to learn that the company hosts a guided meditation for staffers twice a week.
“I’m a very involved person and mindfulness and meditation has really helped me take a step back and see everything I’m doing. It’s helped me live in the moment, because otherwise I’d just go from thing to thing to thing,” she said.
Cantor’s attentiveness to meeting student needs, as well as bringing enigmatic figureheads to campus, has led to more engagement in spiritual practice among her peers, said Smith.
This year, Cantor invited renowned mindfulness and performance expert George Mumford to speak with student-athletes, who comprise a majority of the undergraduate population.
“[Mumford] said something really great, which is that when your freedom level goes up, your anxiety level goes up. Makes 100% sense,” Cantor said. “You don’t want to have so much anxiety, but every time you take a freedom—going to college, taking a new job—your anxiety goes up. That happens every time there’s a change. The job is not necessarily to keep your anxiety level down—it’s to get this balance where you can live with it.”
In 2018, Cantor launched Gulls Pause, an initiative centered on teaching mindfulness techniques to students. When the pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, Cantor moved her mission online.
“My program numbers did not go down,” she said. “The Christian community met every week. We celebrated every Jewish holiday online. We would just do whatever we could do just to keep students involved and in the loop. It wasn’t the same, but it was what it was.”
“During the pandemic, she was always willing to hop on a call and meditate,” added Smith.
Now back on campus, Cantor still maintains open office hours for general chit chat, decompressing, and meditation.
“You can just go to her whenever,” said Smith. “Once you get to know Gail, she puts it out there that it’s okay to ask for help. She really helps students because you can just talk to her about anything.”
From navigating social media pressures to political insurrections to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Cantor wants to leverage mindfulness practices to help students “come out of the swirl of the external.”
“We’re here on this postage stamp-sized piece of land with thousands of people that we interact with all day long, and what’s happening all day? Trigger, trigger, trigger,” she said.
“People mistake meditation for stress reduction, but it’s really for self-awareness. It’s asking, ‘What is going on with me? What is happening here? Why am I so antsy?’ Through practice, you can actually have some dominion over it.”
Cantor also serves as the Co-Chair of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force. It’s a role she relishes.
“To me, that’s part of my spiritual path—that all people get along,” she said. “That’s what I think all of religion is about.”
Learn more about Cantor’s work and spiritual life on campus.