Bringing mindfulness to the masses

Katie Bohn
June 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It started underground, a grassroots effort by Penn State researcher Robert Roeser to help his students understand how ancient wisdom and modern psychology could be combined to help them cope with suffering and cultivate flourishing.

Then a professor at Stanford University, Roeser wanted to teach his students contemplative practices like mindfulness that could help them better understand themselves and not only cope with the stress of college life, but also to thrive.

Because contemplative practices like meditation weren’t yet mainstream or backed up by research, Roeser taught these techniques quietly and found the students loved them.

Now, Roeser and a team of fellow researchers at Penn State are leading a charge to show, with research-backed evidence, that practices like mindfulness and compassion meditation can help both mind and body. They will share tips and techniques with community members July 12 at the Art of Discovery booth, part of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

“We’re interested in the intersection of science and practices like mindfulness, which stem from old wisdom traditions,” said Roeser, the Bennett Pierce Professor of Caring and Compassion in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. “We’re trying to bring these two together, ancient wisdom practices and modern science, which aims to produce replicable, verifiable knowledge, in order to improve our understanding of human development and to create new practices to help individuals flourish.”

What is mindfulness?

For Blake Colaianne, a graduate student in human development and family studies, understanding mindfulness starts with thinking about what it’s not: mindlessness.

“We spend a lot of our days on autopilot, not really paying attention to a lot of what’s going on and just going through our routine,” Colaianne said. “When we think about how often we’re in this state, we can think about what it would be like to create a little more awareness of what’s going on around us, both physically and internally.”

Blake Colaianne

Blake Colaianne is a graduate assistant in Penn State's Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

For example, Colaianne said that while walking on campus, you could try to bring your attention to the present moment by appreciating the beauty of a nearby tree — or by studying the goings-ons of the nearest construction crew. By doing this, you’re being present in the moment instead of perhaps stewing on a negative thing that happened earlier that morning.

By being more mindful, the researchers said we can help promote well-being. And while mindfulness can be beneficial to almost anyone, Colaianne and the other researchers are particularly interested in how the practice can help people who take care of other people, like parents and teachers.

Caring for the caregivers

Much like Roeser, Colaianne became interested in mindfulness as a way to connect with his students. Before coming to Penn State, he spent five years as a high school science teacher.

As he spent day after day teaching the in’s and out’s of earth science, Colaianne started to suspect that his students were struggling with things they weren’t able to talk about.

“I started to reach out to my students, and any time I found the opportunity to really talk to them about their emotions, you could see them light up,” Colaianne said. “You could see they were relieved that someone was willing to talk to them about what was going on in their minds.”

Colaianne started incorporating mindfulness into his classroom as well as starting his own personal study of the practice. As he learned more, he decided he wanted to come to Penn State to continue his studies more formally.

“I’m hoping to be a part of the movement in academia that’s picking up steam of researching and paying more attention to mindfulness and compassion,” Colaianne said. “I want to help all college students, but particularly the ones who are interested in taking care of other human beings, like those who are hoping to become teachers. Because I’ve been there and know how difficult it can be.”

gratitude journal

A gratitude journal is an easy way to boost well-being by helping to reverse the natural tendency to consistently dwell on things that go wrong.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

In addition to his studies, Colaianne helps teach the Art and Science of Human Flourishing course alongside Siri Newman, assistant research professor at Penn State. Newman said the course helps introduce students to mindfulness and a life of flourishing.

“We’re hoping to give students a much more experiential education that helps them become lifelong learners,” Newman said. “We hope to help them develop an understanding of themselves and how to live a life of flourishing and how they can support themselves in their own growth and development.”

Evidence-based brain boost

A far cry from what was available when Roeser started out, research exploring the benefits and effects of mindfulness has grown in recent years. Roeser said the development of science on meditation generally, and specific observation tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging, has allowed scientists to observe how mindfulness affects the mind, brain and behavior in real time.

“We’ve been able to observe and learn that how we use our brains, for instance, for engaging in mindfulness practice, effects the very structure and function of the brain itself based on that use pattern,” Roeser said. “There's growing evidence that if you engage in meditation and mindfulness, it changes the structure and function of the brain in a positive way. For instance, focused attention may improve. Such measurement techniques, and interest in meditation in the culture generally as a stress management technique, were two accelerants for the field to grow and for mindfulness to become mainstream.”

In the past 10 years, Roeser and the other researchers have been developing and testing intervention programs that strive to help teachers incorporate mindfulness into their classrooms. In two separate studies, the researchers found that teachers reported less stress, anxiety and depression after they participated in the courses.

mindfulness cards

Flash cards used in sessions to practice mindfulness help to flex the muscles of emotional regulation.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

Encouraged by the results, the researchers did additional studies and found that teachers’ behavior in the classroom changed as a function of mindfulness training — with trained teachers showing great classroom organization and less punitive techniques. 

Furthermore, in a longitudinal study of students in one high school, the researchers found that when students perceived their teachers as more calm, clear and kind in the classroom — the researchers’ definition of “mindful teaching” — the students were more likely to feel like their own psychological needs were being met in school. 

Students’ perceptions of need fulfillment in school were, in turn, associated with positive changes in the students’ own mindfulness and compassion across the school year.

Colaianne said the study suggests that while mindfulness is largely seen as an internal process, it has the potential for affecting other people, as well.

“Potentially, these teachers that are demonstrating these qualities of calm, clear, kind, are creating an environment that students feel safer in,” Colaianne said. “They may feel like they're being seen and heard, which we know is what people need and desire. It goes beyond their inner world to affect their surroundings.”

Moving forward, Roeser said he and the other researchers will continue to research ways that mindfulness can enrich the lives of both students and teachers, including students and educators in the college classroom.

“We're interested not only in the personal outcomes, but also how does it create a social field that can have a positive impact on others in your social worlds,” Roeser said. “If we can train individual hearts and minds in caring communities of practice, those hearts and minds can create new worlds around them that change the world.”

Learn more

To learn more about mindfulness, visit the Art of Discovery booth from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. July 12. The booth will be located next to Willard Building on the University Park campus and will be open to visitors from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Thursday, July 11, through Saturday, July 13.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 17, 2019