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January 7, 2016

Center consolidates mindfulness activities

The ancient practice of mindfulness, which emphasizes observing and focusing on the present moment, increasingly is being recognized for its value in promoting physical and mental health and as an aid to attention and learning.

A poster at the William Pitt Union’s Stress-Free Zone defines mindfulness.

A poster at the William Pitt Union’s Stress-Free Zone defines mindfulness.

It’s been present in many forms on campus, but only recently became the basis for a University-wide center.

After a year of planning, with funding from the Office of the Provost and broad-based support, the Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies (CMCS) has opened with a mission to “promote scholarship, creativity and well-being through mindfulness research, education, collective practice, and clinical and community service.”

CMCS aims to foster research collaborations, support the use of mindfulness in educational curriculums and promote mindfulness practice as a tool for wellness through “cores” in research, education and service.

Housed in the Graduate School of Public Health, where center director Anthony Silvestre is a faculty member, the University-wide center is funded by the Office of the Provost with additional support from 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.

Scientific literature on mindfulness is growing, said Silvestre. “People have done studies on using mindfulness in drug and alcohol recovery, in severe mental illness, mindfulness as a technique to reduce pain and as a means of reducing stress and therefore increasing immune response. In addition, the School of Education here has a number of people who are doing their own research or dissertations on topics related to the use of mindfulness in schools,” he said.


Planning is underway for a trio of lectures this term — on medicine and health, on education and on religious studies — to reflect the broad nature of the center’s focus.

Details are yet to be finalized, but speakers will include James Robson, a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard and president of the Society for the Study of Chinese Religions, and Christa Turksma, co-developer, author and facilitator of CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) for Teachers.

The center also is planning a mindfulness fair to showcase information on existing mindfulness projects at and near the University and to offer participants the opportunity to learn about and try different mindfulness practices, said center associate director David Givens.

CMCS hosts 30-minute long midday meditation sessions in its Keystone Building suite on Mondays and Thursdays and is seeking to expand to other locations on campus. Silvestre provides a one-on-one introductory session for those wishing to join the group.


The William Pitt Union now features a Stress-Free Zone for students.

The William Pitt Union now features a Stress-Free Zone for students.

Mindfulness can include quiet sitting, breathing meditation, mindful eating, body scan meditation (in which attention is focused part by part from head to toe, or vice versa) or other practices, but the underlying principle is simple: “It’s a way of deliberately bringing one’s attention to the present experience,” Silvestre said.

“Our brains are running tapes of things that we have to do, what’s going on and what happened yesterday. Mindfulness gives us that opportunity to stop the tape. Mind and body come together … and it actually allows us to concentrate better and focus attention and listen,” Silvestre said.

“Mindfulness presents a lot of tools that are very useful for everybody, and certainly for academics — and everyone in the educational system.”

More broadly, other introspective practices such as Christian centering prayer, yoga, tai chi, taizé worship, labyrinth and walking meditations are useful as well for “coming back to yourself,” he said. “There are many different definitions and experiences.”

Practically speaking, mindfulness has a lot of advantages, he said. “It doesn’t cost you anything. It doesn’t have to be related to religion or spirituality, although it can be. And you can take it anywhere.”


The center was conceived after faculty with common interests in mindfulness “began noticing each other,” said Silvestre, who teaches mindfulness meditation. “For every person I knew, that person knew three others and those three knew four others … We kept running into each other,” he said. They began emailing and soon started meeting. “We began to discuss how we might institutionalize what was developing.”

CMCS founding members include faculty from English, religious studies, psychology, psychiatry, social work, sociology, health and rehabilitation sciences and medicine, among others.

Their work takes a number of forms. For instance:

• CMCS member Carol Greco, a faculty member in psychiatry and a licensed psychologist, has been offering mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) courses at the UPMC Center for Integrative Medicine for more than a decade. She also is collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University researcher J. David Creswell on a pair of studies that aim to discover how meditation can reduce stress and improve quality of life.

• Another center member, Natalia Morone of the Department of Medicine, has been studying the use of a meditation program for reducing chronic low back pain in elderly persons, with results to be published soon.

• Leah Northrop, who teaches yoga and mindfulness at Falk School, is among 10 Falk faculty and staff who meet regularly for morning sitting meditation.

“Our faculty and staff have been incorporating mindful practice into the curriculum since as long as anyone can remember,” she said, noting that the mindfulness principles of observation and awareness factor into the Falk School’s environmental education program as well as its language arts instruction.

Northrop noted that Falk School’s “night of mindfulness” event last month drew 250 family members. “People really are hungry for it,” she said. “It brings a greater connection to people around you and the environment.”

• Fiona Cheong of English is teaching mindful writing to medical residents and health workers abroad to improve communication, Silvestre said.

Silvestre, whose work in public health work focuses on AIDS prevention, said, “I’ve used mindfulness and offered it to people with AIDS and dealing with stress related to AIDS.

“I think there are many, many ways as a technique it can be useful in public health,” he said, adding, “I think public health has a lot to say and learn about mindfulness and its impact on prevention, mindfulness and aging.”

Silvestre also teaches mindful meditation as a means of self-care and stress reduction for workers in caring professions such as nursing or social work. “They deserve to have as healthy a life as the patients they’re trying to help. And mindfulness is one way to take a break from the stress,” he said.

He’d like to see Pitt students leave the University with the stress-reduction skills that mindfulness can provide.

“An underlying theme in the center that’s shared widely is wanting to provide a healthy place for students to come to learn how to take care of themselves,” he said. “We send them out to nursing homes, we send them out to do social work, we send them out to halfway houses for people with addictions, and we send them internationally, we send them to city schools — all manner of places where they’re underpaid and overworked and sometimes I think we don’t do enough to give them the tools they need to take care of themselves so they can be productive.”

The center is partnering with student health and wellness initiatives to support mindfulness training at the Stress-Free Zone, Givens said. The room in the William Pitt Union provides a quiet space for individual mindfulness practice, with stations for guided audio biofeedback and meditation as well as free mindful meditation classes for Pitt students.


Additional details on the center and upcoming events can be found at

—Kimberly K. Barlow            

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 9

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