Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Mindfulness and Education: SUNY Educators Aim to Build a Network

By Claudia Ricci

If you had been driving the perimeter road around the University at Albany shortly after lunch on Saturday, April 21st, you might have wondered what exactly was going on in the lovely wooded area behind the campus’ Chapel House.

Three dozen or more people were slowly wandering in different directions through the thick forest, stopping periodically to listen to birds, to gaze at the blue sky, or to examine budding maple leaves, tree bark, plants and spring flowers.

The half-hour event was in fact a walking meditation led by Dr. Terry Murray, Assistant Professor of Humanistic/Multicultural Education Program at SUNY New Paltz, part of a day-long conference held at the University at Albany on “Mindfulness & Contemplative Practices.” The goal of the conference was to begin building a SUNY network to promote contemplative pedagogy and practices within the 64-campus SUNY system.

A total of 42 people attended this debut event, with eight SUNY campuses represented. Among the attendees were faculty from a multitude of disciplines, as well as doctoral students, undergraduates, mental health practitioners, yoga and mindfulness and meditation teachers and interested community members. Joining me as a co-chair to organize this event was Dr. Hedva Lewittes, Professor of Psychology at SUNY Old Westbury. 

A very special guest was SUNY Trustee Joseph Belluck, a Manhattan attorney who has a strong interest in promoting contemplative practices and pedagogy within the SUNY system. Mr. Belluck praised the group for taking the initiative to strengthen a wholistic approach to education within SUNY.

The morning was devoted to introductions, in which all of the participants shared with the larger group why they were drawn to contemplative practices, what kind of work they were doing, and how they hoped their work in mindfulness and contemplative practices could be enhanced or encouraged as we work together to build an alliance of likeminded individuals within the SUNY system. Faculty and students shared the experiences they have had using meditation, mindfulness exercises or contemplative approaches to teaching.

Dr. Lisa Dulgar-Tulloch, a psychologist at UAlbany’s counseling center, spoke about her experience introducing a brand new series of mindfulness classes to interested students through the counseling center. Undergraduates from my new upper division, writing intensive “Happiness” class at UAlbany shared their enthusiasm for mindfulness and contemplative practices as part of the curriculum. Robert Moysey, Area Coordinator of Residential Life at SUNY New Paltz, talked about his interest in offering mindfulness-based programming to students through the college’s dormitory system. Dr. Heinz-Dieter Meyer, Associate Professor of Education at UAlbany, shared an entry from a reflective teaching journal that helps enhance his classes and strengthen his connection to college students. SUNY Old Westbury’s Dr. Lewittes was joined by others emphasizing the relevance of contemplative practices to SUNY's diverse students who often face economic, family and educational challenges.

Many participants talked about the fact that with this daylong event, they felt they could now “come out of the closet” to talk about their deep interest in cultivating a contemplative approach to education, one that incorporates the whole student.

By the end of the day, participants had had a chance to learn about research projects already underway at SUNY schools: among them: Nicholas Van Dam, a doctoral student in psychology at UAlbany, discussed his research (supported by the Mind and Life Institute) evaluating the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions in reducing anxiety and depression; Dr. Matthew Immergut, a sociologist at SUNY Purchase, discussed his studies showing that meditation enhanced students’ cognitive abilities. Graduate student Lisa Napora, in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at SUNY Buffalo, shared with the group her plans to study the impact of meditation on academic performance in the classroom.

Going forward, the group agreed on a number of steps that should be undertaken to build a SUNY Network. Among them: 1) apply for a SUNY “Conversations in the Disciplines” grant in March of 2013 to bring prominent researchers in the field of mindfulness and contemplative practices to a SUNY-wide conference; 2) establish a SUNY blog on mindfulness to which all conference participants could exchange information about mindfulness and contemplative practices, 3) encourage individual SUNY campus members to form small meditation groups or faculty support groups to discuss mindfulness practices in the classroom; and 4) encourage SUNY faculty to become members of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.

One thing was clear at day’s end: there are already numerous connections among the many diverse participants, and there is a groundswell of interest in forging a SUNY network of educators devoted to contemplative practices.  As one participant noted, and she spoke for many, “leaving this conference, I wasn’t drained, the way I am so often by conferences. I was energized and excited.”

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