Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies

Issue Date: 
March 28, 2016

In a conference room overlooking bustling Fifth Avenue, several people gather to sit, backs straight and eyes closed, and focus on their breathing. If minds wander, these stray thoughts are acknowledged then released as attention returns to the breath. The idea is to be fully present in the moment, not thinking of the future or the past. It’s one method of mindfulness meditation, an increasingly popular modern movement with roots dating back to ancient Buddhism. A growing body of research suggests that mindfulness practice can treat a gamut of health concerns, including anxiety and addiction and can even train the brain to approach stress in new ways. 

Practicing the art during the center’s March 19 Mindfulness Fair in the Frick Fine Arts Building (Photo by Emily O'Donnell)These biweekly, drop-in meditation sessions, which last for 30 minutes, are one of many offerings from Pitt’s new Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies, which is housed in the Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology.  Led by center director Anthony Silvestre, a professor of microbiology, the free sessions attract professors, staff, and students from across the University, as well as the general public. 

“Mindfulness enhances one’s concentration, reduces stress, and, in general, improves cognitive skills. Research strongly suggests that any intellectual endeavor can improve with mindfulness practice,” says Silvestre. He was ordained as a meditation teacher by the famed Vietnamese Buddhist Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, whom Martin Luther King Jr. called “an apostle of peace and nonviolence” for his activism during the American war in Vietnam.

Development of the center began in late 2014 when several faculty members with an interest in mindfulness—including Silvestre—began to share ideas on how to enhance mindfulness on campus, in the Pittsburgh community, and around the world. They wrote a white paper outlining goals, which are to promote the practice and scholarship of mindfulness through three core areas: education, research, and service. These core areas are led by the center’s founding members Leah Northrop, Carol Greco, and Fiona Cheong. Northrup, a yoga teacher for the Falk Laboratory School, a K-8 campus laboratory school affiliated with the School of Education, leads the education core; Greco, a psychiatry professor, leads the research core; and Cheong, an associate professor of English, leads the service core. 

The center launched in January with funding and support from the Office of the Provost, the School of Medicine, the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, the School of Education, Falk School, and the Departments of English and Religious Studies in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. 

The center offers multiple activities and guest lectures in the three core areas. Among current offerings is a lecture, “Mindfulness for Teachers: Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education,” scheduled for 4 p.m. March 31 in 5604 Posvar Hall. It will be presented by Christa Turksma from CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) for Teachers. 

Studies show that mindfulness offers promise for academic performance and emotional well-being in students from kindergarten through college. 

“Meditation gives me a greater sense of calm and control,” says Pitt freshman Gabe Jaffe, who learned about the center when he attended a meditation session and now works there. “I’m more conscious and deliberate about how I live and more compassionate. After I meditate, fewer worries run through my head—will I pass my exam, will I miss the bus, do my floor mates like me?” 

The center is partnering with the University Health Center’s Stress Free Zone, which provides yoga and sitting meditations for students. 

“What we want to add to the Stress Free Zone activities is a community around mindfulness, where students can give each other advice and motivation. It’s hard to establish and maintain a mindfulness practice without others around you doing the same thing,” says Jaffe. 

Scientific literature also supports the impact of mindfulness on the larger community, helping people deal with stress, pain, alienation, and illness. For example, a recent study found that in stressed unemployed adults, mindfulness meditation reduced a brain biomarker related to systemic inflammation. The increase in research over the past few decades has piqued the interest of funders, including the National Institutes of Health, notes Greco. The center helps Pitt researchers fine-tune their research proposals. 

“Our monthly research meetings function like an informal lab where the group gives feedback to students or faculty developing mindfulness studies. They get a chance to have their ideas enhanced,” Greco says. 

The center’s goals and ambitions extend to the global community as well. In partnership with UPMC’s Global Health program, the service core is coordinating a trip to Malawi to facilitate mindfulness and writing workshops for Malawian medical trainees. Called The African Voices Project, its purpose is to provide resources for responding to often challenging conditions in Malawi, including high mortality rates and lack of medical supplies. 

“We have a great group of passionate and intelligent people from all over the University who can benefit from talking with and learning from one another,” says David Givens, center co-director and a project director in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology.  The center “is becoming a really exciting and diverse combination of the humanities, medicine, public health, education, and many more fields.”