(Photo credit: Matt Hobbs)
(Photo credit: Matt Hobbs)

Got a Second? Slow Down and Put Mind Over Madness

More UA students and employees are looking into the benefits of contemplative traditions and practices such as yoga, meditation, tai chi and deep listening.
Jan. 28, 2015
Extra Info: 

The Graduate and Professional Student Wellness Conference was established to provide students with information and tools meant to help reduce stress and promote achievement. Additional workshops are being planned:

  • Feb. 13: Michael Goldstein, a graduate student of clinical psychology, will present on the science of breathing.
  • Feb. 20: Deanna Kaplan, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and president of the Arizona Meditation Research Interest Group, will speak about how to cultivate compassion.
  • Feb. 27: Stuart Moody, a conference organizer and director of Green Sangha, teaching mindfulness-based environmental advocacy a certified, will speak about renweing energy and well-being.

Each of the workshops will be held 4-5 p.m. in Room B307 at Highland Commons. All students are welcome to attend.

 

Also, a conversation with Carolyn Jacobs and Mirabai Bus, faculty members in Smith College's Contemplative Clinical Practice Advanced Certificate Program, will be held Feb. 11, noon to 1 p.m. Event information is online.

 

Also, a number of other events are begin planned by the UA Contemplative Pedagogy Learning Community, which is investigating contemplative practices and pedagogy. To learn more, visit the events page.

In his honors seminar one recent Tuesday morning, Alfred W. Kaszniak guided his students through an exercise in which they spent several minutes mindfully eating single raisins.

Kaszniak began by stirring their interests and urging them to suspend judgment. "Some of you may be thinking, 'Why am I doing this? This is dumb,'" he said.

The act of slowing down is at the core of contemplative traditions and practices — such as yoga, meditation, tai chi, deep listening and mindful eating — which have been gaining traction throughout the United States.

"Within the last 10 years, people have become more seriously involved in these practices within our own culture," said Kaszniak, an Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute professor who also holds faculty lines in psychology, psychiatry and neurology.

A growing body of research, some of which has its foundations at the UA, indicates that such practices can have positive emotional, mental and physical effects. They also promote civility and lead to positive changes in the environment, particularly as people adopt more sustainable practices.

"Kindness is the glue that holds societies together," Kaszniak said.

Over the next several minutes, Kaszniak's students smelled and then slowly opened their individual boxes of raisins. Each person removed one raisin. They looked over their raisins, pressed them between their fingers and smelled them. Eventually, each gently placed the raisin in their mouth and held it there. With deliberate intention, each ate a single raisin, paying very close attention to the feeling, sensation and sounds, later reporting a shift in perspective and a realization that some had made automatic assumptions even before the exercise began.

For any number of reasons, we are told to slow down: for better health, to be more efficient in school and work, to strengthen bonds with others and to help prevent car crashes and other accidents.

For those reasons, and others, UA students and employees from across campus have become part of a growing, nationwide movement introducing contemplative traditions in the higher-education sector.

The evidence-based understanding is that the more we are able to quiet the mind, cultivate a strong mind-body connection and live in the moment, the more resilient, compassionate and effective we will be. 

"So many societal problems exist because of instability of attention and emotion, and in people not being able to see our common humanity," Kaszniak said. "In some ways, these practices have always been relevant and, like many things, are not necessarily new. We are now rediscovering ways they have long been important and relevant."

New Programs Launch, Existing Ones Expand

The recent announcement that the UA has launched the Center for Compassion Studies, the nation's first formalized collegiate center of its kind, is only one example of the expansion of contemplative studies and practices at the University.

Kaszniak also is a member of the interdisciplinary Contemplative Pedagogy Learning Community, established after the Office of Instruction and Assessment, in collaboration with the Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, received a Center for Contemplative Mind in Society grant. Kaszniak is the principal investigator on the grant.

The initial planning group for the learning community also helped to establish a Buddhist studies minor, to be housed in the College of Humanities with a fall 2015 launch. The interdisciplinary program will inform students on Buddhist perspectives, societies, cultures and values. Students will take courses in disciplines that include East Asian studies, religious studies, anthropology and other areas.

The grant funding the learning community has led to the creation of new courses, including the honors seminar Kaszniak is teaching this semester. The grant also is supporting forthcoming speaker engagements with invited lecturers, and a daylong event is being planned for the fall.

Also new this year, Leslie Langbert, a clinical social worker and executive director of the Center for Compassion Studies, will be leading a six-week series, "Introduction to Mindfulness Practices," at the Campus Recreation Center beginning March 24. Campus Rec also is offering yoga nidra sessions and "Managing Stress Mindfully," a course that will be offered Feb. 17 and May 5.

These new introductions are married with long-standing programs on campus.

The UA Campus Health Service offers biofeedback training to help students reduce stress and improve overall health. As part of the offerings, students can learn mindfulness of breath and ways to rely on the practice to help reduce headaches, anxiety, sleeping problems and other issues.

The Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, with its whole-person approach to care, launched the first integrative medicine fellowship and residency programs in the nation. Through its programs, the center has trained health and medical specialists across the U.S. and abroad in integrative medicine, which is a combination of conventional medicine and complementary therapies, including Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.

Nearby, the Program in Medical Humanities and Harmony Magazine provide educational and social opportunities for faculty, practitioners, students and the general public to engage in creative learning and experiences.

The UA Cancer Center continues to offer "Mindfulness and Meditation," a free, stress-relieving training course offered to University students and employees.

Kaszniak is working with several doctoral students who are investigating a number of issues, including how somatic movements can help with stress reduction, the benefits of mindful attention and how the cultivation of compassion can support individual well-being. He said the research is encouraging.

"This is still an experiment in new ways of interacting and teaching, and it's still evolving," he said. "Our job in higher education is to help people to be able to develop and to freely and properly manifest, as professionals, as scholars, as workers.

"Some of us believe we squander the great resource of higher education by going through the motions. The purpose of all of this is the possibility that we may see ourselves as interconnected, and that is truer seeing."

The Need for Contemplative Practices

Consider the times you have made a mistake while distracted, or when you have reached into a bag of chips only to find that you had just finished the bag, or the times you've been out to a meal with people who could not stop checking their phones.

This is why people need direct training and consistent practice in learning how to slow down and bring a more mindful perspective into life, Kaszniak said.

"We can begin to lose the skill of being able to stabilize our attention and regulate emotions that contribute to our attitudes," said Kaszniak, who also directs the Neuropsychology, Emotion and Meditation Laboratory at the UA.

Researchers representing an increasingly diverse set of disciplines and fields — including psychology, education, business, music, child development and neuroscience — are investigating the benefits of contemplative practices. 

Kaszniak pointed to research indicating that contemplative practices have been shown to improve emotional stability and adaptability, calm anxiety and reduce chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and joint pain.

At the UA, a number of additional efforts are underway to train students and employees in contemplative practices. 

In support of graduate students, the Graduate and Professional Student Wellness Conference will be held on Feb. 1, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Ventana Room of the Student Union Memorial Center. The conference, supported by the Confluencenter, will introduce students to several body-mind balancing practices. 

"There are such high pressures and demands on graduate students, but we know that people can learn how to better relax," said Stuart Moody, a conference organizer and presenter who has just completed a graduate certificate program in geography.

"We would like students to leave with an understanding of mindful practices, and we want them to have a good experience. We also hope that they will be able take home one practice that they will start doing."

Also, Life & Work Connections, a unit that offers support to employees, has long maintained the same whole-person approach that is advanced by contemplative practices.

"Promoting resilience and intentional living is the work of Life & Work Connections," said Darci Thompson, its director.

"Our interdisciplinary professional team works at the intersection of one's life and work. Our lives are complex and encompass competing demands for time, energy and scarce resources. Working together, we help people to identify strategies to better respond to those demands. We encourage self-care that promotes better energy management that leads to health, well-being and optimal work-life harmony."

Life & Work Connections offers support for child and elder care resources, and also counseling, resiliency training and suicide prevention training, among other lifecycle services.

In 2010, the unit began offering free tai chi classes to aid with stress and chronic pain reduction, and has seen accelerated interest in those sessions, said Jodi R. Charvoz, a certified worksite wellness specialist.

The unit also offers presentations on mindfulness and relaxation breathing, and it incorporates mindful practices in nutrition and fitness coaching and small-group facilitation. It encourages use of the Creative Walking for Health Pathways across campus.

"There was a time when tai chi, meditation and other mind-body practices were considered fringe activities, but there has been more and more interest, much greater than what we have seen in the past," said Charvoz, also a fitness counselor and a registered dietitian.

"Learning tai chi or practicing meditation may seem overwhelming initially. But there are so many facets to some of these relaxation response practices. It doesn't need to be complicated. Learn some small skills, whether two minutes of belly breathing or a simple tai chi warm-up exercise, and incorporate them into your day."