Contemplative Sciences Center Q&A with David Germano

October 09, 2013

David Germano, director of the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center and professor of religious studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, offers his thoughts on the center and its progress in the year since it was formed.

UVA Today: What is the Contemplative Sciences Center?

David Germano: The Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia was founded in the spring of 2012. The center’s mission is to explore contemplative practices, values, ideas and institutions historically and in contemporary times to better understand them and apply related principles in modern contexts.

UVA Today: What is the center’s mandate?

D.G.: The mandate is to pursue research, learning and engagement related to contemplation across all schools and organizational units of the University of Virginia, and to become national and international leaders in this rapidly growing field of activity.

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 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.

UVA Today: What are some of the center’s accomplishments thus far?

D.G.: The following is a select number of activities conducted by the Contemplative Sciences Center thus far:

  • Pioneered contemplative lab sections in academic courses that involve hands-on secular contemplative practice with “Buddhist Meditation in the Modern World” for 200 undergraduates, and yoga for 60 students;
  • Prepared for a 2014 launch of an online Contemplative University and a Contemplative Encyclopedia, a massive and unprecedented reference resource that will provide an elaborate guide to the diversity and depth of the world’s traditional and modern contemplative practices and traditions, as well as contemporary research and applications;
  • Prepared for a 2014 major MOOC, or massive open online course, on “Buddhist Meditation in the Modern World”;
  • Formed a partnership with Intramural Sports and Recreation to make Ashtanga yoga and t’ai chi programs available to all;
  • Launched a speaker series bringing major names in contemplative sciences to Grounds, including this fall’s scheduled appearances by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, author of “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit,” and neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison;
  • Initiated a grant program whereby the Contemplative Sciences Center funded 14 grants for a total of $135,000 to develop programs or research;
  • Fostered a network of engaged faculty, staff and students across all 11 schools;
  • Developed partnerships with Kripalu (a center for yoga and health), the Sonima Foundation, Emory University, Brown University and many other organizational centers of excellence.
  • Initiated a research program on K-4 wellness programs in Southern California;
  • Expanded the Compassionate Care Initiative led by the School of Nursing for training health care workers;
  • Attracted two major contemplative figures to join the U.Va. faculty: Susan Bauer-Wu, the inaugural Tussi and John Kluge Endowed Professor in Contemplative End of Life Care in Nursing, and Patricia “Tish” Jennings, an associate professor of elementary education and an expert in mindfulness and teaching, who will integrate her work in the areas of  contemplative classroom approaches into the Curry School of Education’s teacher preparation program.

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Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications