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Chico State

A Place to Find Peace

Samantha "Sammi" Shea reads a book as Sarah Myers colors and relax in the Zen Den II.
Photos by Jason Halley / University Photographer

Samantha Shea studies and Sarah Myers colors as they relax in the open seating area.

“Nap here, learn in the classroom.”

This, Brooke McCall joked, is the unofficial tagline of the new Zen Den II in the Bell Memorial Union (BMU). The restful relaxation area, operated by the Wildcat Recreation Center (WREC), boasts four massage chairs, three hammocks, and a strong focus on mental health and wellness.

Young man laying in a hammock, relaxed and reading from his mobile phone.
Kevin Pleitez relaxes between classes in one of the Zen Den II’s three hammocks.

Stepping into BMU 301 feels like sighing in relief, said McCall, program supervisor for the WREC. Dimly lit by twinkle lights, the room is filled with calming waterfall sounds from a fountain along one wall. The main area has a living room vibe, with a sofa, chairs, a coffee table, and a half dozen bean bag chairs that can be positioned wherever desired. The side and back walls of the room have curtained-off areas for the hammocks and massage chairs so guests can relax in private.

That ambience is intentional. The new space is an extension modeled after the original Zen Den relaxation room in the Student Services Center, which opened a year ago to help counselors triage patients who were in distress, but not necessarily in crisis.

“We hoped that students who were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and panic could access this low-stimulation environment without an appointment and self-soothe,” said Juni Banerjee-Stevens, associate director of the Counseling and Wellness.

“It is hugely helpful to have something to offer students when we don’t have a counselor available. Students also access the Zen Den on their own … [so] they are capitalizing on their own resilience and learning to manage anxiety without professional help. This, truly, is what we want to promote,” she said.

Annie Weiss relaxes in a massage chair in the Zen Den II.
Annie Weiss takes a break in a massage chair in the Zen Den II.

According Banerjee-Stevens, sleep deprivation is a huge issue on college campuses. Sleep or relaxation are often the best tools for dealing with anxiety and depression, which are typically the first and second most common concerns of students who seek out counseling centers.

“When I see the students go in [the Zen Den], it occurs to me how few spaces they must have on campus where they can really escape,” she said. “If you are introverted or highly sensitive to stimulation, living in the residence halls can get overwhelming. We really wanted to offer an antidote to those environments.”

WREC staff also recognized the serious consequences of students who are too tired, stressed, or anxious to succeed in the classroom. Knowing that not everyone finds calm through exercise, they set about to create the additional relaxation space of Zen Den II.

“Hopefully there is a trickle-down to academic success and retention,” said WREC Director Curtis Sicheneder. “Not to make this too grandiose—we’re not going to solve the world’s problems with a resting space—but if everyone is doing their part to chip away at [stress, anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep], we can make a difference,” he said.

Sicheneder wants students to know it’s okay to disengage sometimes, and that Zen Den II is designed for them. “You don’t have to be perfect 24/7. This place exists for you,” he said. “It’s okay to shut it down and put it in neutral. We care about your well-being. We care about your success while you’re here.”

“I think that’s something, in a general sense, Chico State is really good at—all of campus,” he said. “This is just an extension of that. It’s part of our culture.”

Samantha "Sammi" Shea reads a book as Sarah Myers colors and relax in the Zen Den II.
Samantha Shea studies and Sarah Myers colors as they relax in the open seating area.

Students gather outside the door before Zen Den II opens at 11 a.m., quietly filtering in and finding a place to sit. Some relax, eyes closed in a massage chair, while others scroll through their phones from a hammock or bean bag chair.

“People come in here and sleep all of the time,” said Kelsey Tikkanen, a student program assistant for the WREC in charge of staffing the Zen Den II. “A lot of people say they don’t have a safe, relaxing place to come and meditate, so that’s been good feedback.”

The front desk also has a comment box where the input has been overwhelmingly positive.

“Thank you, just thank you,” wrote one student. “I’m so glad this place exists. It’s a great resource with a wonderful ambience.”

Woman studies a book while sat in on a bean bag chair. Twinkle lights illuminate the room.
Not just for napping, the space is also used for quiet, relaxed studying.

The hope for the dual Zen Dens is not just to provide a place to rest, but also a time and space to recharge and refocus so students and employees can succeed in their study and work.

“I’ve talked to students who come to the Zen Den to do some relaxation exercises before an exam. Others come between classes to ‘detox,’ ” said Banerjee-Stevens. “I think of how many times a day I close my door for even a few minutes so I can focus on an email or just close my eyes and zone out so I can get back on task. Students don’t always have this luxury; I hope the Zen Den gives them that safe space, even for a few minutes.”

The new Zen Den II in BMU 301 is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Students, faculty, and staff are welcome to stop by and sign in for 20 minutes of hammock or massage chair time, or make use of the quiet seating area for rest or study. The original Zen Den in SSC 430 is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Working on the same premise that in order to be successful, students need to take a break sometimes, the WREC is also hosting its De-Stress Fest, held each semester prior to final exams. The weeklong event held December 5–9 features therapy dogs, acupuncturists, massage therapists, relaxation activities, and more. Find the full schedule online.