Published March 10, 2016
In the past 20 years, there has been an exponential increase in the appearance of the words “meditation,” “mindfulness” and “yoga” in peer-reviewed journals, according to David Vago, an associate psychologist in the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston.
This is just one indicator of the booming interest in mindfulness in academia.
Lisa Napora, a visiting scholar in the Department of Learning and Instruction, decided it was time to bring contributors to that discussion together to investigate the place of mindfulness in higher education. “Launching SUNY Initiatives on Mindfulness and Health,” a one-day multidisciplinary conference, took place last Friday in the Center for the Arts.
“When you take a look at the contemplative education movement, it currently resides at the faculty level,” said Napora, the conference’s organizer. “Faculty have the autonomy to infuse [mindfulness] practice in the classroom, but there’s a little bit of a gap between what faculty are doing and administrative understanding.”
The goal of the conference was to broaden the conversation surrounding health in higher education and beyond. It was sponsored by SUNY’s Conversations in the Disciplines program.
“SUNY is one of the largest public university systems, and this is one of the first times a system in higher education has come together around mindfulness,” Napora said.
Half the SUNY campuses were represented at the conference, which also included speakers and attendees from hospitals and insurance companies.
“We intentionally set out to get a wide variety of participants,” said Danielle Pelfrey-Duryea, a visiting clinical assistant professor of law at UB who helped organize the conference. “We were originally expecting about 120 people, and ended up having to cap registration at 400.”
Dennis Black, vice provost of student affairs, presented opening remarks, and Bharat Jayaraman, professor of computer science and engineering, lead an opening meditation. As one might expect, many of those in attendance were self-professed practitioners of mindfulness, which was defined in various ways throughout the day, but could be summarized as a heightened awareness of one’s thought processes.
Morning keynote speaker Daniel Barbezat, an economics professor at Amherst College and executive director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, discussed the ways that mindfulness could make the university environment healthier and more productive.
“Fundamentally, it changes the basic intention of the school, to treat the student, professor and the staff as whole human beings who bring their wholeness to a study of differential equations, poetry, economics, whatever it is,” Barbezat said. “Students start to initiate a question around what’s deeply meaningful to them, and then what they’re learning is not just being filtered through that sense of meaning, but developing that meaning, challenging it.”
Barbezat and other speakers described strategies for incorporating mindfulness exercises into their lessons. Several speakers emphasized that although Buddhists developed the practices used today, mindfulness is not an inherently religious practice.
“Students are sometimes concerned with it being a kind of Buddhist proselytization, which it’s not. These are human practices,” he said.
Vago, the afternoon keynote speaker, discussed mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective and gave a brief history and general overview of its increasing visibility in popular culture and academia. He discussed studies showing that mindfulness practices affect the brain’s morphology, staving off age-based deterioration and shrinking the part of the brain that focuses on one’s self-narrative, where anxiety-based worries reside.
“You have increased synaptic connections that will be reflected in these changes of size,” Vago said. “The parts of the brain controlling the learning of skills increase [with mindfulness practice] and the part of the brain that is associated with self-narrative decreases in size.”
The talks and panels led to vibrant discussions, with many enthusiastic questions and comments from the audiences. Napora attributed this to the interdisciplinary, cross-sector nature of the event.
“The bridging work for this gathering has now gone beyond the institutions of higher education to include people from all constituencies within the community, whether they’re in a clinical practice or they’re in business looking to improve their work environment or they’re a practitioner with their own yoga studio,” she said. “The way the movement is going, everyone wants to come together and have one conversation and I think that’s part of why everyone was so excited.”