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Join the ‘mindful revolution’

New initiative aims to lower stress, improve study skills and sharpen memory through meditation

Von KleinSmid Center, Leavey Reflecting Pool,
A reflection of the Von KleinSmid Center appears in the Leavey Reflecting Pool. (Photo/Philip Channing)

Business professor Allen Weiss specializes in digital marketing. So what’s he doing teaching meditation classes?

“The idea,” Weiss said, “is to make people here at USC more present, less stressed out, less anxious.”

Weiss, who teaches at the USC Marshall School of Business, is not your ordinary marketing professor: He’s also a certified senior teacher at InsightLA with 10 years experience in mindful meditation.

Along with Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, Weiss co-chairs the new Mindful USC initiative, announced last month in a memo that went out to the university community.

The idea is to make people here at USC more present, less stressed out, less anxious.

Allen Weiss

“Our audacious goal,” said Soni, who spearheaded the initiative, “is to create a culture of mindfulness for the Trojan Family.” 

In the moment

Mindfulness is a meditation practice that cultivates present-moment awareness. Practitioners — and there are millions of them — swear it’s the antidote to the permanent state of distraction endemic to our hyper-connected civilization.

Asked to describe how a Mindful USC would feel, Weiss said: “Just think if everybody at USC were making healthier decisions. People didn’t smoke, they didn’t over-eat, they’d be kinder to each other, the faculty wouldn’t be in conflict, health costs would go down. People would want to be here. They’d want to engage because this is where they have all these good feelings.”

The Mindful USC initiative, intended for students, faculty and staff, has three prongs: practice, research and pedagogy.

• The practice component currently consists of six lunchtime guided meditation courses taught by Weiss, plus one led by InsightLA teachers. Numerous practice groups also have formed on both campuses. Weiss, who is donating his teaching services to Mindful USC this year, also leads a facilitator course for prospective mindfulness instructors at USC.
• The research component,headed by David Black, assistant professor of preventive medicine, highlights studies conducted at the Keck School of Medicine of USC — especially around the impact of mindful meditation on insomnia, substance abuse and attention deficit disorder.
• The contemplative pedagogy component— led by Ed Finegan, director of USC’s Center for Excellence in Teaching — builds on an existing CET program that organizes faculty workshops around the use of reflective, introspective and meditative methodologies in the classroom.

Growth guru 

At the initiative’s Oct. 22 inaugural event held in Bovard Auditorium, Google engineer and in-house personal growth guru Chade-Meng Tan (his official job title is “jolly good fellow”) laid out his well-worn path to emotional intelligence.

The creator of Google’s celebrated Search Inside Yourself program — and author of the bestselling book by the same name — likened mindful meditation to bodybuilding for the brain. Thousands of employees at the tech company’s Northern California campus have benefited from Tan’s program, which served as Soni’s model for Mindful USC.

USC isn’t breaking new ground here.

But what differentiates Mindful USC is its ambition and scope.

Varun Soni

“Every Ivy League school already has a mindfulness initiative,” said Soni, speaking at the well-attended Bovard event before Tan took the stage. “But what differentiates Mindful USC is its ambition and scope.”

Nationwide leaders embrace the revolution

Pioneered in 1979 by medical researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn as a way to help patients manage chronic pain, mindful meditation has been embraced by Fortune 500 CEOs, Pentagon officials and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

So ubiquitous has it become that a Time magazine cover story in February proclaimed a “Mindful Revolution.” Rooted in Eastern philosophy, the movement downplays its spiritual origins and tilts heavily toward evidence-based results.

Last year, more than 500 articles appeared in peer-reviewed journals documenting the benefits of mindful meditation practice. These include lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol; protecting against such health problems as high blood pressure, arthritis and infertility; increasing brain signaling connections; improving study skills and sharpening memory; reducing the symptoms of depression; and helping with sleep disorders. Mindfulness can even help you lose weight.

Tan’s program at Google is just the tip of the iceberg, Weiss said. General Mills, Walmart and Procter & Gamble have bought into mindfulness because it’s been proven to make employees happier, healthier and more productive.

An overwhelming response

In January, Weiss began beta-testing his USC-specific meditation courses, delivered in 70-minute lunchtime sessions over five weeks. The response was overwhelming. A course offered through USC Marshall got 80 signups in a matter of hours. A similar offering at the USC School of Cinematic Arts attracted 125 signups in a single day.

One unique feature of Mindful USC, [Allen] Weiss said, “is we’re giving it away for free to faculty, staff and students.” Other university-based programs, such as UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, charge a $185 course fee.

One unique feature of Mindful USC, Weiss said, “is we’re giving it away for free to faculty, staff and students.” Other university-based programs, such as UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, charge a $185 course fee.

With the formal launch of the initiative in early October, the Mindful USC website introduced six meditation courses — including one at the Health Sciences Campus — and a course in self-compassion. Signups quickly reached the 300-person maximum, with 300 more joining a waiting list. A handful of practice groups have formed on both campuses.

At Tan’s inaugural talk, Mindful USC student leader Lillie Moffett announced additional drop-in meditation practice sessions through Nov. 21, offered weeknights at the University Religious Center. No signup is required, noted Moffett, a junior majoring in cognitive science.

Soni and Weiss will continue to advance mindfulness discourse by bringing world-famous meditation advocates like Google’s Tan to USC. Already slated for next spring are talks by Pico Iyer, author of the forthcoming Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, and Mallika Chopra, author of the upcoming Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace and Joy.

Join the ‘mindful revolution’

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