WU hosts first-ever Mindfulness Day

and | Contributing Writers

Washington University hosted its inaugural Mindfulness Day, which included a series of events, workshops, and meetings dedicated to mindfulness and meditation practices, Wednesday, Oct. 4. 

World-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson delivered the keynote presentation titled “Mindfulness and the Skills of Human Flourishing.” Dr. Amit Bernstein, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Haifa, led “Finding Refuge, One Moment at a Time: Mindfulness-Based Trauma Recovery for Refugees.”

Dr. Richard Davidson — “Mindfulness and the Skills of Human Flourishing”

Davidson, the founder and director of the Healthy Minds Center at the University of Wisconsin, presented his research on mental qualities — including resiliency and vulnerability — and approaches for enhancing human wellbeing. Over 100 attendees gathered in Umrath Lounge to listen to him speak.

Davidson discussed his decades-long friendship with the Dalai Lama and noted that their first encounter sparked his lifelong research interest in the neural impacts of meditation. 

Their first meeting also marked an important shift in the Dalai Lama’s perspective, as he began to “recognize the value that neuroscientific research can play in the study of contemplative practices,” Davidson said. 

Davidson expressed a newfound sense of urgency when addressing the issue of human wellbeing. “I get up in the morning with more fire in my belly now than I’ve really ever had before…because [humans] are really suffering in so many ways,” he told the audience. 

Davidson said that human wellbeing is in rapid decline and emphasized the emergence of loneliness as a critical public-health issue. He cited recent research that ranks St. Louis as the second-loneliest city in the United States. 

First-year undergraduates Kayla Feinberg and Jack Furman attended the keynote presentation at the suggestion of their professor. “My favorite part was learning about the four pillars of wellbeing: [awareness, connection, insight, and purpose],” Feinberg reflected. 

Davidson said that wellbeing is a skill that can be learned. He emphasized the role of routine practices like mindfulness and meditation in maintaining wellbeing. 

The keynote presentation concluded with a brief promotion of a free app developed by Davidson’s nonprofit organization Healthy Minds Innovations. The app, called Healthy Minds Program, offers “podcast-style lessons” and meditation practices to support user wellbeing. 

Dr. Amit Bernstein — “Finding Refuge, One Moment at a Time: Mindfulness-Based Trauma Recovery for Refugees”

Dr. Amit Bernstein discussed his project Moments of Refuge — an intervention model that aims to support refugees with mindfulness-based trauma recovery methods. 

Bernstein said that engaging in mindfulness practices successfully aids the healing process of trauma victims. He presented data he gathered as director of the Observing Minds Lab. The data underscored the positive impacts of meditation practices on the mental health of refugees — including a decreased likelihood of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and PTSD. 

“There’s a good sense of this hope to better understand whether we can use mindfulness and compassion [to not only] prevent poor mental-health problems, but to try to buffer and prevent intergenerational transmission of trauma,” Bernstein told the audience. 

The Moments of Refuge project primarily operates in Israel, with a focus on aiding African asylum-seekers — but the project has ambitions for global expansion. It hopes to soon service refugees in post-displacement settings within the United States. 

Bernstein explained that his work in assisting refugees is highly personal because his family was displaced during World War II. 

“I personally believe it is our ethical obligation to grow the most rigorous, the most ambitious, and [the] most compassionate science that we can envision to include, empower, and help care for forcibly displaced people in need.” Bernstein said.

An audience member asked Bernstein how Moments of Refuge operates within Israel’s complex political environment. In response, he said, “the work we’re trying to do, we’re asking, ‘How do you build peace? How do you build peace when you’re not a politician, not an attorney?’ This is our small way of trying to figure out how to do that.”

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