For many of us, life is lived on the cusp of what’s next – our next hour, next meal or next weekend; however, a new university initiative, the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation (PMC), seeks to help people slow down and focus on the present.
The initiative, whose vision statement is “inspiring awareness, compassion and wholeness in every moment,” addresses a critical question President Julie Sullivan asked in her convocation address: “What more can we do to develop our students’ empathy, mindfulness, self-reflection, comfort with ambiguity, imagination and optimism?”
Last spring, assistant professor of theology Tom Bushlack, Ph.D., starting looking around for a meditation room on campus, only to find one didn’t exist. According to Bill Brendel, Ed.D., who also helped spearhead the project, PMC started with “‘We need to have a meditation room on campus,’ and it’s grown to, ‘We need to have a project or program that supports mindfulness and contemplative practices.’” After Bushlack helped obtain a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Process in December and Birdie Cunningham, Wellness Center health educator, joined the effort, offering the center’s space to support the project, PMC was born.
Mindfulness and contemplative practices
In a world of endless distractions that fragment our day, it can be hard to focus on what’s important. Mindfulness and contemplative practices have been proven to re-center this wandering attention, as well as help people cope with anxiety, depression and stress, and improve creativity, flexibility and problem-solving in ways that are not always accessible through other kinds of learning processes. These practices also have shown to rewire the brains of those who maintain a regular practice throughout life, allowing them to think in different, and often more liberating, ways.
“It allows somebody in regular practice to let go of the narratives that consume them and actually limit them,” Brendel said. “That’s why it’s so powerful.”
Brendel, assistant professor of organization learning and development, was trained at the University of Massachusetts in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) by its creator, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., an MIT-trained molecular biologist turned meditation teacher. Mindfulness is one classification of meditation practices, also known as insight meditation. “[Kabat-Zinn] defines [mindfulness] as paying attention on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment,” Brendel said.
Bushlack learned forms of meditation and contemplative prayer from the Benedictines during his undergraduate experience at St. John’s University. A student of theology, he studied the roots of meditation within the Judeo-Christian and Buddhist traditions. He has recently become a commissioned presenter on Centering Prayer from Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.
Brendel’s research agenda includes the influence of mindfulness practice on transformative leadership. PMC targets emerging leaders like students, as well as faculty and staff. The project strives for inclusivity, meeting the participant at whatever level of religious or spiritual engagement he or she is at.
“You could be anywhere from a devout atheist to a secular humanist to a Catholic or a Baptist or a Muslim and you can do this practice, and whatever your spirituality or worldview is, it’s going to engage that and enhance that. … It’s really universal and accepting in that way,” Bushlack said.
Planting a seed at St. Thomas
The project aims to make the concept of “the beginner’s mind” – putting aside preconceived notions and coming into situations with an open attitude – available to the St. Thomas community. The practice of mindfulness relies on this concept to allow participants deeper and more meaningful experiences.
“[Mindfulness and contemplative] practices center a person and they integrate the person in a way that takes the kind of learning that we do in the liberal arts and kind of creates some glue … It’s also kind of a synergistic effect of thinking about, ‘My intellectual knowledge and my heart knowledge and my self knowledge and my commitment to a religious or spiritual tradition or the common good – how do I put that all together and bring it forth to the world?’” Bushlack said.
PMC aims to have these practices support the transformation of the whole person – an idea that fits into the Catholic identity piece of the recent strategic planning initiative.
Brendel said the quote from Sullivan’s convocation address is central to the whole project. “This is the ‘what more can we do.’” Brendel, Bushlack and Cunningham hope PMC will be an effort to infuse these practices into the university, rather than a side project. “[We’re] thinking about ways this could really integrate into the university, into pedagogy in the classroom, into extra-curricular activities. … Can students use this for dealing with test anxiety or the stress of being a student?” Bushlack said.
The three are looking to local institutions that have successfully achieved this integration – the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing and Hamline University’s Mindfulness and Meditation program – but want PMC to fit the specific identity of St. Thomas as a Catholic liberal arts college.
A group effort
Although Brendel, Bushlack and Cunningham are, in Bushlack’s words, “the extremely unofficial steering committee” for PMC, meeting weekly, the project’s Web page lists an advisory board, consisting mostly of professors who participated in a faculty development seminar called “Mindfulness Meditation in Teaching” in summer 2013.
Although few students have been involved in the development of PMC, a neuroscience class, taught by Sarah Hankerson, Ph.D., participated in a study last spring that tested the cortisol, or stress hormone, levels of 30 students before and after participating in mindfulness meditation. The results showed a significant decrease in stress levels.
It was a pilot for a larger study currently in development that’s tied to Brendel’s research on mindfulness and leadership. The PMC organizers and Hankerson will be studying the impact of regular mindfulness meditation over a period of eight weeks. Aside from cortisol levels, the study also will measure facets of leadership and stewardship of the common good: moral development, tolerance for ambiguity, creativity and resilience.
Cultivating a personal practice
PMC offers the St. Thomas community four weekly practice sessions at varying times of day on both Twin Cities campuses. Each is slightly different; mindfulness meditation led by Brendel, mindful movement led by psychology professor Uta Wolfe, Ph.D., and centering meditation led by Bushlack allow each person to choose the practice that is right for them. “All of them are geared toward getting people to engage mind and body as much as possible,” Bushlack said.
The organizers’ goal is to have people develop their own practice. PMC has ordered media resources that will soon be available in the library, including DVD and CD guides and books that explain how these practices have been developed in religious, spiritual and medical traditions. PMC also has a Facebook page and a Twitter for those who wish to stay up-to-date with the project.
Growing the movement
PMC has participated in some major events since its inception, including MPR’s “Everything in its Place: Mind-Body Dialogues.” The event featured a dialogue between Bruce Kramer, former dean of the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling at St. Thomas who was diagnosed with ALS, and Matthew Sanford, founder of Mind Body Solutions. “Mind-Body Dialogues II: Healing Through Stories” will take place at St. Thomas this December.
There have been meditation sessions, workshops and trainings, but PMC kicked things off this fall with a “sit-in” Tuesday on the lower quad. Modeled off the “flash-mob” phenomenon, members of the St. Thomas community gathered spontaneously and meditated to promote PMC.
Another avenue for student involvement is an Aquinas Scholars called “Music, Mindfulness and Meditation” that Brendel and music professor Vanessa Cornett-Murtada, D.M.A., will be teaching this fall. “The entire class is based on taking away a lot of the structure that students are used to so that all they’re left with is this moment. ‘This moment’ could be in silence, or it could be listening to music,” Brendel said. The professors will use uncanny techniques such as taking students’ phones away and asking them to grade themselves.
Cornett-Murtada also will lead a session later in the fall called “Using Mindfulness to Manage Academic Performance Anxiety.” Cornett-Murtada, who works with musicians who have performance anxiety, wants to help all students who struggle.
“So many parts of life are performances. A first date is a performance. A phone call is a performance. The sorts of anxieties a student has on a regular basis [are] to give a presentation in class or take a test or even when you are going to ask the professor a question and your hand is up and you’re rehearsing the question over and over because you have this anxiety about, “How am I going to be perceived?’” Cornett-Murtada said.
Another professor, Susan Stabile, J.D., of the School of Law, completed the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage in Spain – believed to be the path St. James walked on his missionary journey to Spain. Stabile will present on her experience and lead two workshops in October on walking meditation.
And although the meditation room is not yet a reality, the organizers of PMC have been in conversation with the university so that it stays a long-term goal. However, Brendel emphasized that the project is larger in scope than the formal practice of meditation. “There’s the formal practice like sitting or walking, but then there’s the dharma, which is your way of being – the informal practice of real life. … It’s changing our way of being with each other through awareness,” he said.
Bushlack wants others to experience transformation through mindfulness and contemplative practices in the way that he and his peers have. “We’re fired up because we’ve experienced that transformation through our own practice and want to bring that to other people and have them think, ‘Wow, the possibilities are literally endless for what this can do,’” he said.
Weekly practice sessions
- Mindfulness Meditation: noon-1 p.m., Tuesdays, Wellness Center (Room 355), Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Facilitator: Bill Brendel, Ed.D., Organizational Learning and Development. Live-streamed here.
- Mindfulness Meditation: noon-1 p.m., Wednesdays, Room 402, Opus Hall, Minneapolis campus. Facilitator: Bill Brendel, Ed.D., Organizational Learning and Development.
- Mindful Movement: 5:15-6 p.m., Thursdays, Room 209, O’Shaughnessy Educational Center. Facilitator: Uta Wolfe, Ph.D., Psychology Department.
- Centering Meditation: noon-12:45 p.m., Thursdays, Wellness Center (Room 355), Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Facilitator: Tom Bushlack, Ph.D., Theology Department.
- “Walking Meditation”: noon-1 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 8, Wellness Center (Room 355), Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Presenter: Susan Stabile, J.D., School of Law.
- “Pilgrimage”: noon-1 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 15, Wellness Center (Room 355), Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Presenter: Susan Stabile, J.D., School of Law.
- “Using Mindfulness to Manage Academic Performance Anxiety”: TBD. Presenter: Vanessa Cornett-Murtada, D.M.A., Music Department.
- “Introduction to Centering Meditation: A Two-Part Workshop”: 7-8:30 p.m., Tuesdays, Oct. 21 and 28, Wellness Center (Room 355), Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Presenters: Tom Bushlack, Ph.D., and Carol Quest, associate director of Minnesota Contemplative Outreach. Registration required.
- “Mind-Body Dialogues II: Healing Through Stories”: 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 9, James B. Woulfe Alumni Hall, Anderson Student Center. Presenters: Matthew Sanford, founder of Mind-Body Solutions, and Kevin Kling, Minnesota author, humorist and storyteller. Moderator: Kathy Wurzer, host of the “Morning Show” on Minnesota Public Radio.