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USC's Becoming Mindful

Raakhee Natha |
December 11, 2014 | 12:04 a.m. PST

Contributor

A sign on campus advertising Mindful USC, an initiative by the Office of Religious Life to promote general wellness. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
A sign on campus advertising Mindful USC, an initiative by the Office of Religious Life to promote general wellness. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)

What would you like to escape, right here and right now? Odds are you'll say it’s your own mind.

The human mind is busy. Using a simulation exercise, researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Technology have found that it takes around 83,000 processors to conduct one second of human brain activity. This processing power is a good thing, but the inability to quiet the mind and coherently process information and emotions can lead to poor decision-making, according to researchers.

Enter the practice of meditation, one of the oldest aimed at “stilling” the human mind. 

While the practice of meditation might have its critics, who raise the concern that classes may be taught by the inexperienced and warn that benefits don't come as quickly as is often claimed, the appeal of controlling the human mind is generally undisputed. The beautiful irony is that trying to resolve a controlling mind lies in control of the mind.

Many schools are starting to teach this skill, from elementary schools to universities, and this year, USC joins the bandwagon with the launch of its Mindful USC initiative. So what does being mindful really mean? And why should it matter to students?

Dean of the Office of Religious Life and one of the chairs of Mindful USC Varun Soni said that the program, launched earlier this fall, is a comprehensive plan to change the long-term culture of USC. The initiative is built around three components: research, teaching and practice, with the aim of promoting learning and overall wellbeing of the Trojan community.

USC is “most ambitious and comprehensive in our scope” in comparison to most other universities, said Soni.

The research, which is being funded at the federal and foundation levels, is focused on understanding the benefits of mindfulness in terms of combating insomnia, anxiety and stress, common issues for university students. The research will also identify how to help those with issues like depression and substance abuse. Soni explains that with mindfulness growing at universities, the research has become an important area of higher education research. 

The teaching aspect of the program involves bringing together professors from different disciplines to brainstorm how to bring mindful ways of teaching into the classroom. Soni says more than a 100 professors have already participated in the workshops.

Drop-in meditation classes are offered as part of Mindful USC. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
Drop-in meditation classes are offered as part of Mindful USC. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)

The practice element is all about mindful meditation, offered through a free, five-week course on mindfulness open to all students, staff and faculty. There were 300 spots available in the fall class. “It’s not easy to get students to sign up for a class that’s not for credit, not for grade," said Soni. "Within 12 hours of sending out the memo we filled the classes, all of them."

The program was kicked off earlier this year with a talk by Chade-Meng Tan, author of "Search Inside Yourself" and the Chief Happiness Officer at Google. Mindful USC is largely modeled after Tan’s program, in which more than 2,000 Google employees participated. 

But mindfulness and meditation should not be equated. While meditation is a primary tool used to be mindful, the act of being mindful is a broader concept that extends beyond the key practice, says Allen Weiss, professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business and the main teacher for USC’s mindfulness classes.

The first thing to understand, Weiss noted, is that “mindfulness is simply the act of being present for whatever is going on right here, right now." 

For example, while we've got you here reading this article, stop! Backtrack to what you were just concentrating on. Did you remember what you just read or were you reading while thinking about your assignment that’s due today? Being completely present, is quite frankly, not an easy task. Weiss explained that the focus on the present needs to account for three aspects of your being or state: your thoughts, physical body and emotions. 

Secondly, it means accepting how you feel right now. Mindfulness is about observing the present state with no judgment and immediate need to change it. If you are distracted, observe it but don’t try to change it. Just let it be. The reason this simple art of observation is so hard, is because we are programmed not to do it.

“You are going against your habits, and so the way to do that is you have to practice just like you have to practice for anything," said Weiss. "Meditation is just the practice of being mindful.”

He added that a daily practice of 15 minutes for around five weeks would start producing noticeable effects. There was one student, he said, who after the short span of classes began reacting to the practice. Instead of getting angry and acting on her anger, she just stayed with the emotion, observed it and then managed not to act on it, he said. "Instead of reacting to things, they stop and see that they have more options, different ways of being able to handle things.”

USC sophomore Francesca Calvo attends a meditation session on campus. She began learning about mindfulness in high school to help manage an eating disorder, she said. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
USC sophomore Francesca Calvo attends a meditation session on campus. She began learning about mindfulness in high school to help manage an eating disorder, she said. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
Francesca Calvo, a sophomore majoring in theatre, started her mindfulness practice in high school, when she struggled with an eating disorder and her therapist suggested it as a supporting tool. “Once I worked through the eating part of the problem, I figured out that a lot of my eating problems were rooted in social anxiety,” said Calvo.

Some of her issues stemmed from being too critical of herself and always worrying about what others thought, said Calvo, and it was a constant conversation in her mind. 

Calvo started off with little exercises like noticing the sensation of water in the shower, lotion on her hands and then moved to meditation. She says that people didn’t understand the concept, and even her sister found her behavior weird. So she “had to be in the closet about it," she said. 

The practice has had a big impact on her life. While she used to be angry and bitter in her responses, now she is happier and calmer. She says she is more productive, enjoys things more and makes decisions that all point to her common goals. She feels that the pressures of college are not getting in her way.

As a drama student, Calvo said being mindful also correlates with acting. “With theatre, you don’t try to play an emotion. You think about what circumstances and reality and actions lead you and bring about that emotion. With mindfulness, it’s not that you are an emotion, but you are experiencing the emotion."

Lillie Moffett, a junior majoring in cognitive science and psychology, is another student leader for Mindful USC. She started meditating two years ago, mainly because it helps her stay calm and focus. “I am a very self-critical person … constantly yelling back and forth within my brain, and so that was a moment to mute that second voice in my head,” said Moffett.

When Moffett harnessed the power of meditation, she said she had an "aha moment."

“I can mute that self-critical voice in my head," she said. "'Whoa! You have a lot more control than you thought you did Lillie.'"

USC Professor David Black holds up the TIME magazine issue declaring 2014 "year of the mindful revolution." (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
USC Professor David Black holds up the TIME magazine issue declaring 2014 "year of the mindful revolution." (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
Dr. David Black, assistant professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine, is leading the research component of Mindful USC. As one of the few programs that started its research from the get-go, it is a true example of practice and research combined, he said.

The research involves student surveys that assess their levels of anxiety, stress, awareness and concentration from day one of the program. In the future, other factors like creativity will also be assessed, with the overall goal of determining how much more engaged students are in the learning process as a result, he said.

People often ask about the neuroscience of meditation, said Black, particularly the physical effects of meditation and mindfulness on the human brain. “We do find in the literature ... that people who have been meditating for a long time have specific brain structures that seem to be different from people who don’t meditate,” he said. 

A small sample pilot study Black worked on at the Keck School showed that the brain of the older adult - the average age being 67 years old - had an increase in grey matter after taking a six-week mindfulness course. It’s exciting news, he said, because it suggests that “we possibly can still rewire our brains through training, no matter how old we are.”

For Mindful USC, a target aim is to combat stress-related ailments, commonly caused by sleeping problems. University reports identified these as "the leading issues affecting their ability in the classroom and to perform,” said Black. "Generally, people's self-reports of stress do reduce post-mindful training." 

Research shows that mindfulness training has resulted in benefits from stress reduction to even improved GRE scores. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
Research shows that mindfulness training has resulted in benefits from stress reduction to even improved GRE scores. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)

Black cited reports that showed sweeping changes with minor steps, such as a study at the University of California Santa Barbara that revealed that weeks-long mindfulness training improved the working memory capacity and even GRE performance of students. “After a few sessions, it’s kind of transformed the way that they engage in day-to-day life. They see things differently. They have the opportunity to see their reactivity, their judgments that they place on all these things and realize that really impacts their day to day life," he said.

So what is it that makes 2014 the year of the "mindful revolution?" Black responded that looking at academic publications from 1980 to 2014 has shown a massive increase in the publication of articles on mindfulness. While the "revolution" doesn’t necessarily mean that people are becoming more mindful than before, the science of finding focus in a stressful society is growing, he explained. 

Mindfulness is even happening in elementary schools. Dr. Randye Semple, assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Keck School, oversees mindful research that exclusively deals with the study of children. Semple, who coordinates a 12-session group program to help children from the ages of 8 to 12 with anxiety and mood problems, explained that teaching mindfulness to children is not the same as to adults.

“If, for example, you ever tried to make a 9-year-old sit still for 45 minutes, it doesn’t work so well," she said. "I have never seen an adult try to balance meditation cushions on their head.”

With children, the techniques are adapted with lots more creativity, hands-on metaphors and sensory mindfulness, such as touching, seeing and smelling, said Semple. She uses devices like snowglobes to explain what mindfulness is, pointing to the flying snow to symbolize scattered thoughts. When the children sit the snowglobes down, they wait and watch the snow settle, intended to calm their minds and settle their thoughts. With this exercise, “we can see what’s inside, we can see more clearly what’s actually there and what has been there all along,” the professor said. 

Do children actually grasp the concept of being mindful? Semple says they do. The image below shows side-by-side comparisons of drawings done by a 12 year-old with assessed interpersonal and conduct problems. The picture on the left was drawn in the first week of the 12-session program, and the one on the right in the 11th week.

A 12-year-old's drawing before and after taking mindfulness classes. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)
A 12-year-old's drawing before and after taking mindfulness classes. (Raakhee Natha/Neon Tommy)

The task was to illustrate what mindfulness means to him, said Semple. The first drawing was scattered and didn't have too much depth, she said, while the second was more focused and clear, containing powerful imagery and words.

Six months after the program, there was no reported talking back or suspension for any of the kids in the program, said Semple, and the boy’s mother told Semple it was the most remarkable change she had seen in a short period of time. 

Reach Contributor Raakhee Natha here.



 

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