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Fall Convocation

Fall Convocation Archives: Fontaine Speech

Dorrie Fontaine, Dean of the School of Nursing
“The Power of Pause”
Convocation Address – University of Virginia
September 27, 2013

President Sullivan, Rector Martin, vice presidents, fellow deans, faculty and members of the Board of Visitors, and most especially the students we honor today and their happy parents and family: I am so very pleased to be invited to address you. In addition, I would like to thank Mr. Alexander Gilliam, University Historian, and the selection committee for recommending me. I understand there were students on the committee and so I am even more grateful.

Today is a wonderful celebration. A recognition of you, students, and your achievements at this moment in time. This is surely a time to pause. (pause) A time to celebrate. (pause) We don’t pause often enough in our busy lives.

Some of you recall (maybe from high school?) Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” a 1938 play, a 3 ACT ensemble about 2 families experiencing life’s routines---birth, marriage, work, death---in Grover’s Corners---an imaginary turn of the century New England town.

One scene towards the end of the play reminds me of how special today and our time at UVA and our lives truly are. When the very young Emily Webb dies in childbirth and is up in heaven ---she looks down on a scene from her 12th birthday and says:

It really goes by so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize …so all that was going on and we never noticed? Do human beings ever realize life while they live it? every every minute?”

The answer is we don’t. We are often not paying attention. I invite each of you right now (everyone, DF turn back to the stage as well) to pause, take a moment to turn to your right and take a deep breath and look into the eyes of the one sitting next to you, breath out slowly…and then turn to your left, take a deep breath in and out and look. And smile. But I bet you already were!

So let’s address the power of pause. And the wisdom that comes from pausing. And along the way mention what we are working on here at UVa to perhaps increase our capacity to pause/pay attention/and become more of the person you and likely all of us hope to be. Perhaps one who is happier, kinder, more mindful, grateful, resilient, compassionate and even more wise. Traits/virtues that truly make a positive difference in the world. (And who would not wish for this?)

I also plan to share some of the good news of our compassionate care initiative in my own School and the larger university-wide Contemplative Sciences Center, that is changing the way we engage, learn, and connect in meaningful ways across all 11 schools---faculty, students and staff, alumni and the community.

And finally I want to offer a few tips for becoming more mindful and happy.

Maybe this sounds familiar: in the many meetings I attend, nearly everyone seems to be looking down at their lap instead of at each other…why? iPhones and emails and messages. You guessed it. Is today’s life such that the present moment is so not interesting that we need extra stimulation from elsewhere? In her welcome address to the parents this year, President Sullivan noted that most students have 4 screens open on their computers at a time; social media sites very likely, often while they write a paper. And one of them might even be a movie!

Interestingly, decades old research suggests that all this multi-tasking is actually not good for us and “fatigues the brain” even though many perceive they are accomplishing much. Scientific studies on multi-tasking indicate that carrying on several activities at once may, in fact, reduce productivity, not increase it. Cognitive psychologist David Meyer from the University of Michigan was a pioneer in this work. According to Harvard teacher, Shawn Achor in his book, the Happiness Advantage (2011), today there is a universe of distractions to hear, watch, forward to others…he says technology makes it easier for us to save time and it also makes it a lot easier for us to waste time----distraction is just one click away! Achor talks about “disabling” things that distract us.

What are the downsides to all this distractibility? We know it increases stress and can harm us in ways we are only just discovering. Think cell phones and driving.

Let me share what this might mean in my field, health care. Nurses and physicians often suffer from a broken heart these days as they feel unable to meet the demands of patients, families and each other as they maneuver through our  complicated health system. Too much documentation, not enough time, too high a patient load and communication barriers that inhibit our ability to give the best care possible. It can feel like a rat race. And that leads to burnout. In fact 60 % of all healthcare providers report burnout in one recent study.

I told this story to none other than His Holiness, the Dalai Lama in October of last year. I was lucky to be invited to participate on a panel with 4 UVa Health System physicians for the “Compassion as a Global Remedy in Medicine” conference. We were all on stage at the Paramount Theatre in Downtown Charlottesville. 1000 people in the audience. I told about a wonderful colleague and Emergency Department nurse, Jonathan Bartels, who is part of our compassionate care initiative in the School of Nursing; an initiative to alleviate human suffering by developing more compassionate and resilient people (meaning students and health care providers) as well as institutions.

When a patient dies in the emergency room, suddenly life changes in that instant for that person and family…health care providers are affected too as they fervently try to save that life. Here is how Jonathan, tells it:

“I noted that when people die after a traumatic instance, a code, often I would see surgeons and docs and nurses walk away with frustration, throw their gloves off in a defeatist attitude, not recognizing that the patient was a human being we worked on saving. So after these deaths I decided it would be a good thing to stop and pause and do a moment of silence. Just stopping. Honoring them in your own way, in silence.

In 45 seconds …And honoring each other for the good work they did…They have even had patient’s families participate in what they call The Pause.

A reflective pause. A pause of resilience. And very literally a pause between patients, too.

It is catching on here at UVa. Recently after a difficult, tough death on one of the medical units, an anesthesiologist said “Can’t we just do The Pause like they do in the ER?”

It seems simple. But with powerful results. Being fully present, paying attention. This is how we hope to change our culture, to create resilient nurses, physicians and all colleagues who can better care for themselves so they can care for others with compassion and strength.

Not only nurses and physicians wish to pause and reflect …students and faculty across schools are actually coming to their senses so to speak and realizing they are missing something in these hectic lives.

So outside of healthcare, an admittedly intense and stressful place, can contemplative practices help us live day to day with greater joy and ease and create a more meaningful life? Achor suggests that we have it backwards: happiness does not follow success but it is the other way around. Happy people find success. Happiness fuels success.  And contemplative practices that I define here can lead to increased well-being and happiness. Mindfulness is one of these.

So what really is mindfulness? According to my colleague Susan Bauer-Wu, a cancer nurse and faculty (Kluge Professor) in my school, it is the “capacity to intentionally bring awareness to present moment experience with an attitude of openness and curiosity…a way of being and relating to ourselves, our circumstances, and the world around us.”

Contemplation broadly defined is a set of practices, secular ones, not only yoga alone, or mindfulness or meditation but according to Professor and Tibetan scholar David Germano in our Religious Studies Department, contemplation can be interpreted as a uniquely human capacity to observe, interpret, and make meaning out of our world and experience, transforming both through deliberate practices of the body and mind. At UVa we see this as the fusion of an essential academic and practical subject at the heart of learning. This idea was the genesis of the Contemplative Sciences Center, funded 18 months ago by a generous gift from Sonia and Paul Tudor Jones. As you can see this is more than yoga and more than mindfulness.

Researchers have studied the benefits of numerous practices like yoga and mindfulness and meditation and the findings are consistent:

  • Stress is reduced, lowering stress hormones like cortisol and the effects on the body can prevent illness by bolstering the immune system and essentially all bodily systems
  • Neuroscientist Richie Davidson who wrote the Emotional Life of the Brain (2012) and gave a talk on Grounds last week as part of the Contemplative Sciences Center speaker series, has demonstrated that there are very specific regions in the brain that light up on fMRI scans of the brain in meditators…and with mental training we can strengthen our own capacity for empathy, compassion, optimism and a sense of well-being
  • Elementary school children can be taught mindfulness (Mindful Schools Program) and it leads to improved social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, and can even prevent bullying. Teachers are being encouraged and taught to do this in national programs and UVa and Dean Bob Pianta has recruited a national expert, Professor Tish Jennings here to the Curry School to extend this important work.
  • Patients/families and health care providers when taught mindfulness/meditation strategies report increased well-being with greater life satisfaction and resilience. My colleague Kluge Professor Susan Bauer-Wu’s work with mindfulness training in cancer patients supports this in our School of Nursing.

The Contemplative Sciences Center’s mission is:  To advance the study, teaching, and practice of contemplation, as well as associated scientific research, as an essential means toward individual and collective human flourishing.” In a unique way, the Center pulls the 11 schools together with students who are truly looking for ways to de-stress, be more reflective, pay attention and create more meaning/even wisdom in their life. Faculty, a few in every school, have found each other and have been working quietly on studying and fostering contemplative practices, sometimes for many years.

Here are a few examples happening right now across schools at UVa:

  • Ashtanga yoga and other forms of yoga and T’ai Chi programs are available to all through a partnership with Intramural Sports
  • Marketing Professor David Mick in the McIntire  School of Commerce teaches a popular elective on “Wisdom and Well-Being”
  • In the College of Arts & Sciences, and in our world renowned Religious Studies Department, Professors David Germano and Kurtis Schaeffer offered a first time course on Buddhist Meditation and Mindfulness for 185 students last Spring. Exceedingly popular, with experiential practice, it will be offered as a Massive Online Open Course or MOOC next Spring.
  • Susan Bauer-Wu from Nursing and Sam Green from the School of Medicine have a new course on Introduction to Mindfulness which completely filled in moments.
  • Professor Roz Berne in the School of Engineering offers a special mindfulness and reflective component in a required course for all first year engineering students.
  • The School of Medicine has a 15 year experience with the Mindfulness Center, teaching Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction. The Appreciative Practice Center is also a model.
  • The Law School has faculty enthusiasts and student followers and Dean Bob Bruner from Darden recently addressed his new students in August about mindfulness and being fully present “saying mindfulness  was being self-aware of what is going on around you and your impact on others.”
  • Dean Harry Harding of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy was one of 7 faculty and deans (including me) that traveled to Bhutan last August to investigate further collaborations with the Royal University there around mindfulness and the country’s unique philosophy of “Gross national happiness, not Gross national product.”
  • Psychologist Jim Coan’s recent study found that humans are hardwired for empathy: if a friend is under threat it is the same as if we were threatened. He studied 22 students using fMRI (brain scans) to monitor brain activity under threats.
  • The Center for Design and Health in the School of Architecture is a leader in exploring aspects of the built environment that promote contemplation.
  • Finally, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio will be here on October 4th in an open forum to discuss his new book “A Mindful Nation.” Made possible by the Contemplative Sciences Center.

All this and more in the first 16 months.

We see the synergy of UVa’s excellence depicted in this Center that is already showcasing academic and research achievements around contemplation.  The Contemplative Sciences Center is engaging faculty and students across all 11 schools, tailoring unique contributions and addressing gaps in needed teaching and research. Thanks to the great work of Professor David Germano leading our Directorate, we have chosen 5 areas of focus: health and well-being, education and learning, design and place, professions and performance, and culture and wisdom. Each domain has specific and ongoing education and research. And we are enthusiastic about the future potential of our work together. So I say: stay tuned and get engaged.

Finally, I want to leave you with a piece of advice. Everyone loves to give tips. Useful ones, hopefully. Five years ago, my son’s favorite high school teacher in San Francisco gave some advice to the graduating class. Mr. Castro, their beloved English teacher called it the 3 C’s for going to college:

  • Go to CLASS
  • Don’t do COCAINE
  • Use a CONDOM

The parents at this Jesuit school on the Pacific Ocean were a little surprised. The kids of course loved it and we admitted it was actually pretty good advice. So on Mr. Castro’s theme I will offer my own 3 “C” tips for creating your own kind of “Pause”:

  1. Consider a contemplative practice: try yoga here at UVa in the multiple daily classes we offer through the Intramural Rec Center or take a mindfulness course, maybe the new MOOC in January. Pause and consider what may catch your attention. Try out one of the resilient rooms and spaces we are growing here on Grounds. Did you know we have 2 rooms on the 2nd floor of McLeod Hall? One smaller where we do 6am meditation every single Wednesday (nurses and MDs have to get to the hospital by 7am, thus the early hour!) and we also offer free yoga there several times a week. The South Lawn is creating resiliency rooms as well as other buildings across Grounds.
  2. Carve out time for gratitude. Start a gratitude journal of just writing down 3 things you are grateful for every night. Then look at it in the morning…do it for 21 days and it is a habit. Will lead to enhanced gratefulness and more happiness. Remember Thomas Jefferson spoke about happiness.
  3. Cultivate a practice of kindness towards others and yourself. George Saunders, a short story writer and professor of creative writing at Syracuse University said in a recent talk that of all his regrets, it was being mean or having a “failure of kindness” that most bothers him now. He suggests an antidote may be to try meditation to learn to better pay attention. Richie Davidson from the University of Wisconsin is studying how a “Kindness curriculum” for 4 year olds can truly change their behavior and perceptions of themselves and others. If 4 year olds can do this, maybe we all can!

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you today and think about Pausing. The benefits and the practice. I always say to my students, “What do people see when they see you?” Someone distracted and rushing, closed-minded and judgmental, maybe chronically unhappy? Or someone who is kind, compassionate, calm, and able to serve others with love? Yes, I mean real love. For each of you here today, I hope it is the latter and I will stand ready to cheer you on in all your progress.

Thank you