The Real Aim Is to Make Change

Mindfulness goes way beyond self-improvement, as our editor-in-chief sees on a visit to two innovative programs.

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If you drive—as I did recently—from Baltimore to Charlottesville, VA, you pass through stunningly beautiful countryside, as gently rolling hills give way to the Blue Ridge looming in the background. You also pass through a graveyard: the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and “the Wilderness,” where almost 10,000 people lost their lives during the Civil War. The atmosphere can take on a somber, ghostly feel—and can also strengthen your resolve to work for change without aggression.

Mindful’s publisher, James Gimian, and I were in that part of the world for a visit with the leaders and staff of the Holistic Life Foundation (HLF) in Baltimore—for an event celebrating 14 years of work in schools using mindfulness and yoga to improve the lives and opportunities of youth at risk.

In April, in the midst of the public unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, HLF held a “group meditation to increase peace and unity,” and their event this September had the same feel. A big part of their mission is to promote a new, larger understanding of family. They demonstrate how the bonds of empathy and caring we often extend to our immediate family can take in a much broader range of people. In cofounder Ali Smith’s words, “People who don’t look like each other need to come together.”

From Baltimore we went to the University of Virginia (UVA), where they’d been through a difficult year as well, including a black student being beaten and bloodied by liquor control agents a month before the Gray incident. This kind of strife and tension asks us to consider how mindfulness can be helpful not only as self-improvement, but as societal improvement, as an instrument of peace.

At UVA, we were greeted by David Germano, director of the Contemplative Sciences Center, a three-year-old initiative whose mission includes integrating contemplative practices, such as meditation and yoga, into the life-changing experience of college for every student who is open to it.

A contemplative life, he believes, isn’t achieved by creating a club that agrees with itself and has all the right answers. It involves opening up to each other to explore how to do things better, more inclusively, and more creatively. “The aim,” he said to us, “is not to create more meditation and yoga teachers, or even more relaxation. The real aim is to make change.”

While there, we saw architects, athletes, Spanish teachers, nurses, K-12 educators, the head of student advising (and many more) finding ways to bring meditative practices into their work with students, and to the way they think about their fields. In one class, 120 students stopped for five minutes mid-class to sit quietly—paying attention to their body, mind, and surroundings—and take stock. Not a bad model for us all, as we try to find ways to make a better world.

Let’s all go back to school!