This week, Deepak Chopra and Arianna Huffington headlined — if one can headline such a thing — a meditation at the University of Virginia, as guests of the school’s Contemplative Sciences Center.
To refresh your memory, that’s the institute that Sonia and Paul Tudor Jones — backers of Jois Yoga and the Sonima Foundation — seeded with money last year.
Here’s a little from the school’s story on it:
The meditation got under way and silence fell over the Lawn, disturbed only by a distant train whistle or an airplane flying high above. Standing on the bottom step of the Rotunda stairway, Chopra guided the crowd through stages of meditation: “Let your mind settle into your breath,” he said. “Think of who can use your help. Ask ‘What am I grateful for?’”
The crowd numbered about 300. Some stood, some laid down on blankets; most sat upright, while others leaned on the bases of Jeffersonian columns dotting the Lawn.
The newsworthiness of Chopra and Huffington’s being on campus also was a reason for the school’s communications team to check in with center director David Germano. A few highlights of the Q&A:
UVA Today: Why are the contemplative sciences important?
D.G.: Education isn’t just about imparting knowledge; it’s about imparting wisdom. It isn’t only about critical thought and intellectual achievement; it is also about developing personal and social skills with an integrated depth of experience enabling our students to transform into active, engaged, compassionate citizens of a diverse world.
Contemplation is best known in terms of the formal practices that are thought to exemplify it. Such practices include those with long cultural histories, such as contemplative Christian prayer, Hatha yoga, t’ai chi or Buddhist mindfulness. Contemplative practices also include contemporary and secular applications, such as performance visualization, deep listening and leadership training. Such practices are thought to improve human life when individuals and communities cultivate them deliberately and intelligently. In various traditions and settings, contemplation is said to heighten awareness, deepen understanding, improve learning, facilitate compassion and increase the quality of conscious choices.
Questions arise about contemplation and its practices – some of them skeptical – and thus rigorous scientific study, broadly construed, into its mechanisms and impact in specific contexts is essential. The center is blending 2,500 years of knowledge from spiritual and secular traditions around the world with the systematic investigation, experimentation and understanding of modern scholarship in the sciences, humanities, arts and social sciences.
In addition, theory and research only go so far, thus we need tight integration of research with practical applications that implement programs for transformative effect in specific sectors inside and outside the University.
UVA Today: What types of research are being conducted at the center?
D.G.: Promising new research and initiatives are going beyond anecdotal accounts to scientifically demonstrate the effects of what some refer to as “mind training” or “conscious practices of the self.” Research is under way to discern the effects of contemplation on the brain and easing depression, to improve K-12 teaching and learning, to increase successful recovery from addiction and to reduce stress among office workers and returning veterans. Research is also being conducted on issues related to end-of-life care training; symptomatic relief in fibromyalgia; contemplative practices as a way to address the so-called “SpongeBob Squarepants effect” on children, whose executive functions are negatively affected by watching fast-paced and fantastical children’s television shows; quantifying spiritual growth; mindfulness and kidney disease; swim team and cardio-respiratory dynamics; and much more. Such research programs aim to understand contemplation and its mechanisms in the body and mind.
This research draws on academic disciplines ranging from philosophy to neuroscience and can be applied in many professions, contexts and sectors of society. Evidence-based research on contemplative practices is now being employed not only to help individuals thrive, but to solve intractable societal and institutional problems in concrete applications ranging from failing public schools to skyrocketing health care costs to poor employee productivity.
The center involves many people and sponsors a wide range of initiatives across academic fields, but is strengthened by the common purpose of advancing the study, teaching, practice and use of contemplation.
To facilitate an interdisciplinary approach integrating the humanities and sciences, and both in turn with the full range of professional schools, the center’s work is focuses on five interconnected themes as it explores contemplation in research and learning:
- Health and Wellbeing: exploring physical, emotion, mental and social health and wellbeing through cross-disciplinary research and new models of learning.
- Education and Learning: investigating how contemplative practices can help us teach and learn more effectively and creatively in elementary, secondary and higher education.
- Design and Place: researching how we design and build our physical and organizational worlds to foster wellbeing and reflection as architects, engineers and professionals.
- Professions and Performance: examining the ways contemplation can help us perform with more efficiency, innovation and wellness as athletes, musicians and professionals.
- Culture and Wisdom: inquiry into traditions, histories and ethical reflections of contemplation and collaborating with scientists and professionals in research and application.
There’s mention of an online Contemplative University that will be launched in 2014, but the link isn’t active. I wonder what that’s about? Stay tuned.
Posted by Steve