Alfred W. Kaszniak guides his students through an exercise: mindfully eating raisins, one at a time.
“Some of you may be thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? This is dumb,’” he says. But he urges them to suspend judgment.
Slowing down is at the core of contemplative traditions and practices like yoga, meditation, tai chi, deep listening, and mindful eating, all of which have been growing in popularity.
“Within the last 10 years, people have become more seriously involved in these practices within our own culture,” says Kaszniak, an Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute professor who also holds faculty appointments in psychology, psychiatry, and neurology.
A growing body of research shows that mindfulness practices have positive emotional, mental, and physical effects. They also promote civility and lead to positive changes in the environment as people adopt more sustainable practices.
“Kindness is the glue that holds societies together,” Kaszniak says.
Over the course of several minutes, Kaszniak’s students smell and slowly open their raisin boxes. Each person removes one raisin. They look over their raisins, press them between their fingers, and smell them. Eventually, they gently place a raisin in their mouths and hold it there. With intention, they eat a single raisin, paying close attention to the sensations they experience.
The evidence-based understanding of this type of mindfulness is that the more we quiet the mind, cultivate a strong mind-body connection, and live in the moment, the more resilient, compassionate, and effective we become.
People need direct training and consistent practice in slowing down and bringing a more mindful perspective into life, says Kaszniak, who also directs the Neuropsychology, Emotion, and Meditation Laboratory at the UA. Otherwise, “we can begin to lose the skill of being able to stabilize our attention and regulate emotions that contribute to our attitudes.”
Researchers representing an increasingly diverse set of disciplines and fields — including psychology, education, business, music, child development, and neuroscience — are investigating the benefits of contemplative practices. The UA recently launched the Center for Compassion Studies, the nation’s first collegiate center of its kind. In addition, the College of Humanities has established a Buddhist studies minor to begin in fall 2015.
“Some of us believe we squander the great resource of higher education by going through the motions,” Kaszniak says. “The purpose of all of this is the possibility that we may see ourselves as interconnected, and that is truer seeing.”