Mind and Life Summer Research Institute: Day 5

The scientific exploration resumed Friday, following a day of silence, including contemplative practices of mediation and walking mediation, along with meditation instruction and contemplative instructions from contemplatives Sharon Salzberg, Will Kabat-Zinn, Geshe Dorji Damdul and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.


The First Morning Session of Day 5 was Teacher-Student Interactions: The Role of Mindfulness, by Bridget Hamre, Ph.D.. which explored effective and ineffective teaching methods v is a vis a teacher’s role in fostering students’ social, self-regulatory and cognitive development.


Hamre talked about the extreme variability in the kind of experiences that children have in classrooms and how that challenges teachers as well as how teachers should be recognized and respected for their work. “Teacher effectiveness is the buzz word of the day,” she said, “and in some ways only measures how well students are doing, but maybe we should also pay attention to what the teachers are doing that’s working.”


She said that there are three domains of interaction that are important: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support and that teachers who received consultation in these areas versus just getting information off of a website had increased sensitivity to their students where as the web-only group had decreased sensitivity over time.


The Second Morning Session was a panel discussion on Teacher Programs including Robert Roeser, Ph.D., Patricia Jennings, Ph.D. and Linda Lantieri, M.A.


Jennings is piloting CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) under a development grant from the U.S. Department of Education. “We are looking at the mediating factors that are really important in social and emotional competence in teachers,” Jennings said. “We know these contribute to a healthy classroom climate and that, in turn, is related to improved outcomes in kids.


Jennings described interpersonal mindfulness in the classroom as including listening with full attention, present centered awareness, openness, non-judgement and acceptance, self-reflection, open –heartedness and compassion.


Roeser discussed SMART (Stress Management and Relaxation Techniques in education). “It’s amazing how often reforms try to bypass teachers,” he said, “almost like we make teacher-proof curriculum. But in terms of thinking about what makes a quality teacher, we know that content knowledge – what you are teaching – is important, pedagogical content knowledge – how you teach – is important, and developmental knowledge – knowing the developmental characteristics of the students you are teaching is also important.”

Lantieri discussed her long history in education and shared some poignant and illuminating feedback from teachers and students following 911 in part as evidence that the teacher-student system needs to accommodate the dynamic and unplanned experiences in addition to curriculum. “The thread throughout all my time with children is how to have an expanded version of what we mean as an educated person,” she said. “In particular, the dimension of social and emotional learning is key.”


The First Afternoon Session featured Trish Broderick, Ph.D., Sat Bir Khalsa, Ph.D., Mark Greenberg, Ph.D., Kim Schonert-Reichl, Ph.D., and Will Kabat-Zinn, M.A., and was a panel discussion on Developing and Evaluating Contemplative Practices for Children and Youth.


Broderick discussed the BREATHE program (Body, Reflections, Emotions, Attention, Take it as it is, Healthy mind habits, Empowerment). “The heart of the curriculum is mindfulness,” Broderick said, “as a way of helping young people experience their life in a different way. Kids routinely say, ‘Everyone tells me to stop stressing out but no one tells me how.’ We think that the mindfulness-based curriculum can offer value for many reasons: dealing with the ups and downs, stress reductions, executive function; there is a real advantage to knowing your emotions as they arise.”


Khalsa clarified what truly is yoga versus the perception of it. “To the media and the public image, yogoa is a physical practice,” he said. “But the original yoga is a practice of meditation, mindfulness and awareness. The practices of deep relaxation and the physical postures are all for enhancing the mediation and mindfulness.”


Khalsa’s research is based on bringing yoga to the school curriculum, where he found improved anger control and resilience as well as a stable level of negative affect with conversely increased in the non-yoga control group. “We are really seeing a preventative effect for these kids,” he said.


Greenburg conceded that he did not get the result he expected from his yoga study, and that they may have to consider investigating different parameters going forward. “I was naïve about what yoga might do and what our population was like,” he said. “For example, many of the kids are overweight and have asthma, and just the breath itself was an issue. It may be that basic health effects may be as important to measure as some of the mental health effects.”


Schonert-Reichl runs the MindUp program in Vancouver which has a current curriculum for grade and middle school, but which she looks to expand to more grades. “The program was designed in 2005 and includes different research and theories in the areas of neuroscience, social and emotional learning, positive psychology and mindfulness training,” she said. “We started in 2005 with 17 teachers trained and now there are 800 teachers trained. Some of the effects on elementary school students are well-being and prosocial behavior.”


Kabat-Zinn talked about his personal background in meditation and the organic evolution of his program of bringing mindfulness meditation to incarcerated youth, first in New York City and then in California. He pointed out that with this population, tactful approaches must be taken. “In the prisons, we also meditate, but that often comes later,” he said. “The relationship comes first and I have found that all of the qualities we are trying to achieve with mindfulness can be present in everything; it has to do with being intimate with what is really at heart, an authentic form of love that is not the soft love rejected by these men. When that shift happens; if there has been a foundation laid or seeds planted, they kind of know where to go when they are ready.”


In a Special Afternoon Session, Geshe Dorji Damdul initiated a comparative discussion between Buddhist studies and modern scientific studies, particularly physics. After giving an introduction to Buddhism as a primer, he explored the Buddhist relative and relational points of view on perspective vis a vis quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.


“So, is there the moon, when no one looks at it?” he queried. “According to quantum theory, we cannot say yes or no, until it comes into contact with an observer. So from this point of view the existence makes sense only in relation to an observer.”


Delving deeper he outlined the structure His Holiness the Dalai Lama uses to explain the interdependent, relational world called Dependent Origination. The three parts are:


1. Causality (causes and conditions)

2. Parts make up the whole

3. Imputation by the mind


“The existence of anything, including the self, makes sense only through dependence on many factors,” he said. “And out of these factors, the most important factor is the factor of the designating mind.”


After dinner, Francisco J. Varela Awardees presented a Data Blitz, each with three minutes to introduce their current work and findings followed by poster sessions in the auditorium. The presenters and topics this evening were:


1. Maria Molfino, Meditation and Pranayama Breath Training in High School Students: Effects on Self-Monitoring and Self-regulation

2. Jessica Noggle, A Semester-Long Yoga Intervention Maintains Mental Health of Adolescents in a High School

3. Alison Parker, The Moment Program: Mindfulness-Based, Middle School Academic Achievement Program

4. Janis Kupersmidt, Mindfulness Program for Substance Abuse Prevention for Elementary School Students

5. Geoffrey Soloway, Role of Mindfulness Training in Initial Teacher Education

6. Kathryn Byrnes, Contemplative Pedagogy in Teacher Education

7. Karen Davis, A Longitudinal Mediation Model of the Mechanisms of Change Within a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program

8. Irene McHenry, CORE skills + CORE habits of mind = Effective, Accessible Teaching and Learning

9. Angela Wilson, Standardizing a Yoga Intervention for Research: A Preliminary Study

10. Angeline Lillard, Montessori and Mindfulness

11. Ellen Katz, Attending to Clinical Social Work Practice: Mindful Attention as Holistic Competence