NUI Galway embarks on a mindful adventure

Opinion: Intentional awareness can aid excellence in education and enable creative responses

‘We will dedicate spaces on campus to mindfulness practice.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘We will dedicate spaces on campus to mindfulness practice.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Because of the increasing pace of modern life, we are transitioning from human beings to human doings. We are losing connection with ourselves and with each other.

The lack of time to stop and reflect is contributing to the rise in mental-health issues in society. The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease globally. Three-quarters of adult mental disorders begin before the age of 24, and close to 30 per cent of young adults have at least one mental illness.

Prescription of antidepressants in the UK between 1991 and 2011 increased by 500 per cent. An analysis at the World Economic Forum in 2011 estimated that the cumulative global impact of mental disorders in terms of lost economic output will be $16 trillion over the next 20 years.

The rate of youth (15-24) suicide in Ireland is the fifth-highest in the EU, at 15.7 per 100,000. This makes Ireland’s youth suicide rate 19 times greater than Greece’s. This all points to a clear risk factor for Irish universities, where most students are in the at-risk age range.

As a scientist I am interested in the importance of both mental and physical wellbeing in maximising work performance and ability to adapt to changes in a work environment.

There is convincing scientific evidence of physiological changes to our bodies under certain conditions; for example, when we are under stress, during exercise and also when we engage in mental activities such as mindfulness and meditation.

Researchers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts and Richard Davies at the University of Wisconsin have demonstrated the effectiveness of mindfulness and other contemplative practices in reducing stress and anxiety, enhancing focus and wellbeing and changing gene expression, inflammatory pathways and neural anatomy.

Our neuronal connections and brain mass are affected by thoughts, repeated actions and electromagnetic stimulation. This is known as neuroplasticity: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. In simple terms, continuous anxiety, fear and negative thoughts – or stillness and positive thoughts – have a profound impact on our brain and physiology.

 

Work-based stress

Higher education is going through dramatic change, with pressure on student numbers, student retention, academic performance, globalisation, funding and resources. Students and staff are not immune to mental-health and work-based stress issues. For Irish higher education institutions to remain competitive globally, the health and wellbeing of students and staff is vital.

Empirical evidence suggests that the practice of intentional awareness of our moment-to-moment experiences can assist in the cultivation of wellbeing and can lead to benefits at a personal and professional level.

Chris Ruane, a former British MP, has been practising meditation and mindfulness for years. He has persuaded British parliament to offer mindfulness courses to MPs. As of July 2015, 100 UK parliamentarians had attended mindfulness workshops.

The US military has invested $150 million in mindfulness training of its armed forces and returning war veterans.

And corporate giants including Google, Microsoft, Sony and Apple provide mindfulness training to executives.

 

Live in the moment

Educational attainment is a key factor for success in life, and mindfulness can help to bring about excellence in education. By enabling people to live in the present moment, and releasing the mind from the habitual ruminative patterns that lead to worry, depression and burnout, mindfulness can enable creative responses to challenges.

NUI Galway is starting on a journey to adopt a mindfulness culture. This month we hosted a conference of mindfulness experts, leaders in society and entrepreneurs, along with students, staff and university leaders, to discuss mindfulness in higher education.

The Mindful Way conference was our first step towards understanding the role mindfulness can play in providing a more enriching experience for staff and students. There was such an enthusiastic response that we want to build on the momentum to see what can be achieved collectively through a more mindful approach. Over the next year we will host a monthly mindfulness lecture series to bring evidence-based mindfulness to NUI Galway; our first speaker leads a mindfulness programme at Cambridge University.

We are also working with Oxford graduate and Tibetan Buddhist monk Gelong Thubten, who will provide mindfulness workshops. We plan to dedicate physical spaces on campus to mindfulness practice and to provide drop-in meditation sessions for all. We are also collaborating with academic leaders and entrepreneurs to bring “mindful entrepreneurship” to our Blackstone Launchpad programme, which promotes entrepreneurship among undergraduates.

Investment in mindfulness can bring positive change through reduced stress and enhanced mental clarity and performance.

  • Prof Lokesh Joshi is vice-president for research at NUI Galway
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