Last Tuesday afternoon, 300 people assembled cross-legged on the Lawn outside UVA’s Rotunda as famed spiritual leader and M.D. Deepak Chopra led a mass meditation session.
“Hold your hand up like this,” he said into his mic. Up went hundreds of fists. If the hand was a brain, “this would be your spinal cord, and this part of your brain where the thumb is, that’s called the midbrain, or the reptilian brain,” responsible for the four f’s, he said: “Feeding, fighting, fleeing, and—reproduction.” Giggles erupted.
Over the next 10 minutes, Chopra calmly instructed the crowd to quiet their base instincts, become aware of their breathing, self reflect, and transcend.
Just feet from the Rotunda steps sat online media mogul and, as of late, mindfulness and meditation promoter Arianna Huffington, who had been invited by UVA to introduce Chopra, her longtime friend. Beside her, open hands in their laps, were the two people most responsible for the event happening at all, wealthy alum Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia, a well-known follower and teacher of Ashtanga yoga.
This month marks a year since the start of the first programs offered by UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center, a multidisciplinary program made possible by a $12 million gift from the Joneses to fund the study of mindfulness and meditation, and incorporate the practice of both into every school at the University.
The CSC’s birth coincided with the continued fallout over the attempted ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan last year; Sullivan touted the creation of the center as an example of forward-thinking leadership around the same time Jones wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post supporting her departure.
A tumultuous beginning, and there have been some shifts since. Founding director John Campbell, who helped develop the idea of the center with the Joneses, is now teaching full-time, and religious studies professor Dave Germano is at the helm. But Germano said that with support from the administration, the idea that the science and practice of contemplation and meditation belongs in higher ed has taken hold here.
He and others have spent the last year asking faculty what the CSC could bring to their schools, and launching programs that tie mindfulness to other learning, from the nursing school to Darden. “The first year was building a social map of the University and beginning to connect people, to gather and broach these larger conversations about contemplation and well-being,” Germano said.
Now they’re ramping up. The CSC launched a new website, and is organizing a kind of booking agency through which members of the UVA community can find and hire teachers who study contemplative traditions—yoga, meditation, T’ai chi. And they’re raising their own profile-—both at home and beyond—with events like last week’s star-studded session.
“There’s a revolution going on in the awareness of the importance of working our minds individually to tap into a greater social consciousness, and I think the CSC is the spearpoint for that initiative here,” said Jones as his wife, who had kicked off her Miu Miu pumps, mingled barefoot on the Lawn, chatting with friends.
“Look at this,” he said, gesturing at the crowd. “What started out as a yoga initiative has gotten so much bigger. Fast forward a year from now, and I think it’ll be something that will be part of the culture of this University.”