Can meditation, yoga or mindfulness training help nurses and teachers be more effective and resilient in stressful situations? Can such contemplative practices be part of a more effective treatment regimen for major depression, or for alcoholics in recovery?
What can we learn about the mind from brain scans of advanced meditators engaged in deep meditation? And what are the commonalities between advanced meditation and athletes or artists who report being "in the zone" – focused on only the present task and moment, performing efficiently and gracefully, yet with no conscious sense of effort or thinking?
Those are just a few examples of the types of research that will be fostered by a new Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia, said David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, who will help lead the new center.
The center is being created by a $12 million gift from Sonia and Paul Jones of Greenwich, Conn. Paul Tudor Jones is a 1976 graduate of the College. The gift will be announced Friday at the start of a three-day Tibetan Medicine and Meditation Symposium at the School of Nursing's McLeod Hall.
The symposium is bringing together leading Tibetan, American and international scholars and practitioners of meditation and mindfulness, researchers on mind-body connections, and medical professionals to explore the intersection between modern science and the classical medical and contemplative traditions of Tibet.
The conference is one example of how the new center will bring together diverse academic disciplines to approach the theory and practice of contemplative traditions from a variety of perspectives, Germano said.
At its heart, the center will be a series of collaborations among the College, School of Medicine, School of Nursing and Curry School of Education, fostering partnerships among humanities scholars, medical and nursing practitioners, clinical researchers, education researchers, and contemplative practitioners, among others. Plans call for evolving partnerships with other schools, including the School of Architecture, the Darden School of Business, the McIntire School of Commerce and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. The center will also coordinate its activities with U.Va.'s athletic and intramural programs, and plans to reach a wider audience through the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.
The center will foster exploration of the practices, ideas, and modern applications of contemplation, building on existing strands of related research and activity around the University, Germano said.
For instance, nursing professor Ann Gill Taylor, director of the Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies, is studying whether yoga can help women with major depression, and whether the ancient Chinese healing art of internal qigong – which has a meditative component as well as gentle tai chi-like movements – can help reduce stress and seizure frequency among patients with epilepsy.
Taylor and her colleagues have already published a theoretical model for the mechanisms by which mind-body therapies are effective for reducing stress and improving overall health-related quality of life. Collaborations with the Contemplative Sciences Center can help test and refine that model, she said.
Professor Ed Kelly and colleagues in the Division of Perceptual Studies at the School of Medicine envision collaborating with the center to study the brains of those engaged in deep meditation and other altered states of consciousness. Kelly's team can measure the brain's electrical activity and blood flow changes with two types of state-of-the art imaging equipment.
"U.Va. has had, for a number of years, remarkable expertise in different sectors," Paul Jones said. "What we need now are threads to tie them together and weave them into a greater whole. Our goal with this gift is to enable the Contemplative Sciences Center to function as an integrative force that pulls together disparate parts of the University."
The center plans to offer an innovative – and perhaps unprecedented – combination of diverse programs that integrate contemplation and yoga into a major research university, Germano said. The center will focus on providing basic and applied research, curricular programs and practical applications to real-life situations.
The nursing and education schools both plan to partner with the center to study how contemplative practices could help nurses and teachers be more effective and resilient.
Like the practice of top athletes using visualization or breathing exercises to empty the mind of distractions and enhance performance, the center aims to distill key kernels of contemplative practice traditions that have demonstrated benefits, and teach those kernels as portable and modular life skills, Germano said. Building on existing meditation, yoga and mindfulness classes offered by the Medical School's Mindfulness Center and Intramural-Recreational Sports, "the center will try to increase mainstream awareness about the potential benefits of training your mind and body," Germano said. "Hopefully, like drops in the ocean, this training can lead people to greater reflexivity, greater understanding, greater caring, greater efficiency and greater insight."
"At this juncture," Sonia Jones said, "our educational system needs to consider new ideas and practices for the mind and body that can complement its traditional valuation of critical thought and debate. We think contemplative and yogic traditions offer transformative possibilities in this regard, and hope that our gift will enable U.Va. to engage in an extraordinary experiment aimed at reassessing learning and well-being in relationship to these traditions."
The Joneses' initial inspiration for funding the center came as a result of their devotion to their Ashtanga yoga teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and a desire to honor his life and legacy, she said.
The Joneses added that, in the next five to 10 years, they would like to see U.Va. emerge as the world's center of thinking about how higher education, and society at large, can be transformed by contemplative and yogic practices, ideas and values.
In its inaugural year, the center plans to offer courses from yoga and contemplation instructors, host a "contemplative-in-residence" and award research funding. The center also plans to host an annual contemplative summit and a speaker series.
Germano said that in his 20-plus years at the University, he has never been involved with an initiative that has received such a positive response.
U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan expressed the University's gratitude for the Joneses' gift. "This new center will serve as a focal point for interdisciplinary initiatives that can bridge schools and departments," she said. "It will be an academic center for teaching, research, social engagement and practice as they relate to all facets of the contemplative sciences."
A national search for the center’s coordinating director is ongoing, with an appointment expected soon. The center's official launch will take place in October.
— by Brevy Cannon
April 10, 2012