McCarthy and Mindfulness

The Theory and Practice of Healing

Thao Nguyen ’22
line drawing of seated woman

“Pain is inevitable in life,” says Erin McCarthy, professor of philosophy at St. Lawrence University, “but suffering is optional.” McCarthy’s view on mindfulness is now being tested after being injured in a car accident in January, and she finds herself relying on mindfulness in her healing process.  

“When walking, I am aware of my heart rate, and my headaches, and I’m aware when I’m nauseous,” McCarthy  says. “Since part of concussion recovery involves pacing, and since I am quite energetic, my mindfulness practice is helping me to know my limits and not push past them.”

“Mindfulness helps me to not get pulled into the depths of despair,” she says, explaining that simple things that most people take for granted, like reading, can be difficult for her and she is only able to read children’s books to get her kids to sleep. 

 “There are also days when I am pretty sad that I can’t teach my two new classes, or days when the headaches are overwhelming,” McCarthy says of the struggles limiting her professional commitment during recovery. Despite being a skilled practitioner in mindfulness, her recovery has not always been a smooth road but she says applying a nonjudgmental awareness of the present has proven to be a tool to reduce her suffering of both emotional pain and physical pain.  

McCarthy started meditating on and off as an undergraduate, but her study of mindfulness expanded while teaching Asian philosophy. “As I was teaching,” says McCarthy, “I realized that all of the great philosophers, no matter what the tradition, whether it was Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist or Indian philosophy, they all said you can’t understand the writing unless you also do the practice.” 

Since arriving at St. Lawrence, McCarthy has been advocating for mindfulness practices at the University by hosting weekly drop-in mindfulness sessions or bringing practices into her classroom. She developed a mindfulness class called Philosophy of Happiness that incorporates mindful self-care practices for college students by combining classical mindfulness and meditation practices with mindful self-compassion. “The students really liked it. It helps them with their stress levels and provides them with a break in their weeks.”  

Hannah Kolpack ’22 agrees. “I was skeptical because I had never tried mindfulness activities before,” says Kolpack, a student in McCarthy’s Philosophy East and West class, which began with short meditation activities. 

“The meditation really centered me back to the classroom and where I was in the moment,” Kolpack continues, “and provided me with a little bit of calm before class.” 

McCarthy believes the liberals arts environment is a perfect laboratory for mindfulness. “I love the way that at a liberal arts college like St. Lawrence gives faculty the chance to integrate their research and teaching so seamlessly and exposes students to philosophies from around the world,” McCarthy says. 

Upon her return to campus, she is hoping to be a resource for students who are dealing with concussion recovery and also plans on developing a mindfulness class about dealing with pain. “I’m looking forward to offering more mindfulness, both in and out of the classroom, when I return.”

This year marks McCarthy’s 20th year at St. Lawrence University. McCarthy is the coauthor of the Freeman Foundation grant, which brought in $1 million to the University to increase Asian studies across the curriculum.