Zen State: Researchers, students link contemplation with well-being

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Sitting still, quieting one’s mind for a moment can pose a seemingly insurmountable challenge amid the technological distractions, packed schedules and din of modern life.

But at Penn State, many are contemplating contemplation, finding that brief practices done regularly can bring calm and clarity. (Meditating under a tree for seven weeks — as the Buddha is believed to have done on his road to enlightenment — isn’t necessary.) They’re demystifying meditation, turning Penn State into Zen State.

“It's not about making your mind do things,” said Mark Greenberg, founding director of the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development. “It’s just being with your mind and seeing how it flows, and becoming comfortable with it. For most forms of meditation the idea is not to change the mind, it’s to engage it.”

Sitting alone, legs crossed and repeating a mantra by candlelight is one way to meditate, but Greenberg and colleagues in the burgeoning field of mindfulness research are finding evidence supporting the benefit of myriad contemplative practices such as deep breathing exercises, seated meditation, yoga and mindful listening.

“We can engage in practices that help us make that space between what we think and how we respond just a little bit bigger, just a little more flexible."

       — Jennifer Frank, research assistant professor, Prevention Research Center

The Prevention Research Center is the hub at Penn State for research into mindfulness — living with a heightened sense of the present with a nonjudgmental acknowledgement of current emotions — and how contemplative practices nurture it.

Greenberg has been meditating since the 1970s but didn’t start researching the effects until 2000, when he was invited to a gathering of scientists with the Dalai Lama in India. He pointed out that there are currently more than 100 National Institutes of Health-funded studies on mindfulness.

The body of research is growing because initial findings are so promising, according to Greenberg. Studies on brain activity have shown that mindfulness can prevent the over-arousal of the body’s stress system, he said, and those who meditate regularly have been shown to have better development in parts of the brains that affect decision making and emotive regulation.

He was influential in creating the center’s Program on Empathy Awareness and Compassion in Education (PEACE), where mindfulness fits into the mission “to promote health and well-being in children, youth and families through the scientific understanding and promotion of awareness, compassion and empathy.”

Greenberg, the Edna Peterson Bennett Chair and Professor of Human Development & Psychology, meditates for 20 to 30 minutes most days, seated, usually first thing in the morning. Sitting in the lotus position isn’t necessary, but it’s important to be seated in a comfortable and alert position. He urged openness to multiple contemplative practices such as walking in nature, fishing or praying.

“Meditation is going to be good for some people and not for others — or at one time in your life and not at another time — and there are lots of practices that we can do to be contemplative to be more aware of ourselves to be more aware of others, to have a sense of spirituality,” he said.

Jennifer Frank, a research assistant professor in the Prevention Research Center, has brought calm to elementary and secondary schools through her research into mindfulness.

“We can engage in practices that help us make that space between what we think and how we respond just a little bit bigger, just a little more flexible,” she said. “Our work focuses on education because the need is great and potential for impact large. Mindfulness will never substitute for good curriculum and instruction, but it may help students become more cognitively and emotionally available for learning and bring out the very best in our teachers.”

Frank worked with Greenberg and research assistant professor Patricia Jennings on a study into the effectiveness of Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE), a program aimed at helping teachers regulate emotions, live mindfully and cultivate compassion. CARE, which was developed by Jennings, psychologist Christa Turksma and professor Richard Brown at Naropa University in Colorado, included reflective writing, group discussions and at-home practices presented to school teachers at urban and suburban schools in two Northeast districts. After a 30-hour program spread over four to six weeks, the teachers reported that CARE increased well-being, made them more efficient, decreased stress and reduced daily symptoms of ailments such as headaches, stomach pains and fatigue. 

Another of Frank's studies delivered a program of yoga poses, breathing techniques and meditation called Transformative Life Skills to sixth- and ninth-graders at an inner-city California district. After a semester of 30-minute sessions three to four days each week, there were fewer unexcused absences and detentions, and more classroom engagement. 

In another study, Frank and research associate at the center Patricia Broderick, who developed the program, found that suburban Philadelphia high school students were less stressed and could better regulate emotions after 15- to 25-minute weekly sessions of a mindfulness-based curriculum called Learning to Breathe. Students were guided by presentations, group activities, discussions, in-class mindfulness practices and take-home CDs for after-school practice. Greenberg and Frank have just received new funding from the U.S. Department of Education to further study the effects of Learning to Breathe.

“In terms of how and why it works, we're only beginning to understand that,” she said. “There are people doing research at the neurological level — neurobiological correlates — there’s people who are looking more in terms of changes in emotional functioning and day-to-day emotional awareness.”

To be most effective, mindfulness habits need to be weaved into everyday life, she said. A visual trigger can help, acting as a reminder to take three deep breaths at moments throughout the day. In the CARE program, teachers were issued coffee mugs emblazoned with “breathe.” Other programs encourage people to place stickers in key locations, like computer monitors or vehicle dashboards, to remind them to practice.

Beyond the Prevention Research Center, Penn Staters’ road to enlightenment includes meditation groups, yoga sessions, a tai chi club and the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, which boasts ample space for quiet contemplation including a meditation room and chapel.

There’s also no shortage of books, magazines, apps and podcasts.

Mindful meditation has even made it into the Nittany Lions men’s basketball team’s 2013-14 training routine under the guidance of the Wayne, Pa.-based Verge Yoga.

Coach Patrick Chambers said meditation helps him “take a step back” amid the long season and regain his thoughts. For players, they’ve been better able to cut through distractions and focus on the game, he said, and that fits with a coaching style focused on the power of a positive attitude.

“Attitude is not worrying about what you can’t control, and instead focusing your energy on the one thing you have complete power over,” Chambers said. “I think meditation can be helpful in clearing your mind of all the external things that may be bothering you.”

Kami Dvorakova, a doctoral student in human development and family studies, sees results in the field as well as among the students she draws for her weekly Meditation & Buddhism Study Group at 7 p.m. Thursdays in Room 312 of the Biobehavioral Health Building. For her, a crucial first step is establishing the simplicity of contemplative practices and stressing the inclusion of multiple religions and cultures. 

“You cannot be a bad meditator,” she said. “If we feel like bad meditators, it's because we are clinging to the idea of how meditation should feel. It is a misconception that meditation makes you stop thinking or reach some extraordinary state. Paying attention to and letting go of judgment about our meditation experiences increases our awareness of what is actually happening in the present moment."

Alexis Harris, another doctoral student in human development and family studies, echoed the accessibility of meditation.

“Let go of expectations that you have about it,” she said. “Just be open to what you're going to experience.”

Both assisted with the CARE research project, and Dvorakova is pursuing two grants to fund a study on the impact mindfulness could have on first-year college students. She’s fond of a self-compassion, a meditation on silencing your inner critic and accepting yourself.

“Think of a child that is crying or is hurt,” she said. “What will you do? Will you yell at the child like ‘Oh you’re a stupid 2-year-old or will you be like ‘OK, let me give you a hug. So with self compassion, you’re giving that hug to yourself.”

Senior Alex Koury said the study group offers a community where thoughts can be shared in a nonjudgmental atmosphere. He found eastern philosophy so appealing, he changed his major to Asian studies from astronomy and astrophysics.

“Meditation, for me and many others, is really about spending quality time with yourself,” Koury said, “and cultivating awareness is the natural result of taking that time to pay attention to you. … Regardless of whether I'm driving my car for my delivery job, focusing on a lecture in class, enjoying a peaceful day of free time or listening to my friends and family's problems or stories, that awareness is increasingly there.”

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Last Updated July 07, 2014