Newswise — April 11, 2012 — Can meditation, yoga or mindfulness training help nurses and teachers be more effective and resilient in stressful situations? Can such contemplative practices be part of a more effective treatment regimen for major depression, or for alcoholics in recovery?

What can we learn about the mind from brain scans of advanced meditators engaged in deep meditation? And what are the commonalities between advanced meditation and athletes or artists who report being "in the zone" ¬¬– focused on only the present task and moment, performing efficiently and gracefully, yet with no conscious sense of effort or thinking?

Those are just a few examples of the types of research that will be fostered by a new Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia, said David Germano, a professor of religious studies in the College of Arts & Sciences, who will help lead the new center.

The center is being created by a $12 million gift from Sonia and Paul Jones of Greenwich, Conn. Paul Tudor Jones is a 1976 graduate of the College. The gift will be announced Friday at the start of a three-day Tibetan Medicine and Meditation Symposium at U.Va.

At its heart, the center will be a series of collaborations among the College, School of Medicine, School of Nursing and Curry School of Education, fostering partnerships among humanities scholars, medical and nursing practitioners, clinical researchers, education researchers, and contemplative practitioners, among others. Plans call for evolving partnerships with other schools, including those focusing on architecture, business, public policy and adult learning.

The center will foster exploration of the practices, ideas, and modern applications of contemplation, building on existing strands of related research and activity around the University, Germano said.

"U.Va. has had, for a number of years, remarkable expertise in different sectors," Paul Jones said. "What we need now are threads to tie them together and weave them into a greater whole. Our goal with this gift is to enable the Contemplative Sciences Center to function as an integrative force that pulls together disparate parts of the University."

The center plans to offer an innovative – and perhaps unprecedented – combination of diverse programs that integrate contemplation and yoga into a major research university, Germano said. The center will focus on providing basic and applied research, curricular programs and practical applications to real-life situations. The nursing and education schools, for example, plan to partner with the center to study how contemplative practices could help nurses and teachers be more effective and resilient.

"At this juncture," Sonia Jones said, "our educational system needs to consider new ideas and practices for the mind and body that can complement its traditional valuation of critical thought and debate. We think contemplative and yogic traditions offer transformative possibilities in this regard, and hope that our gift will enable U.Va. to engage in an extraordinary experiment aimed at reassessing learning and well-being in relationship to these traditions."

The Joneses' initial inspiration for funding the center came as a result of their devotion to their Ashtanga yoga teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and a desire to honor his life and legacy, she said.

The Joneses added that, in the next five to 10 years, they would like to see U.Va. emerge as the world's center of thinking about how higher education, and society at large, can be transformed by contemplative and yogic practices, ideas and values.

In its inaugural year, the center plans to offer courses from yoga and contemplation instructors, host a "contemplative-in-residence" and award research funding. The center also plans to host an annual contemplative summit and a speaker series.

U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan expressed the University's gratitude for the Joneses' gift. "This new center will serve as a focal point for interdisciplinary initiatives that can bridge schools and departments," she said. "It will be an academic center for teaching, research, social engagement and practice as they relate to all facets of the contemplative sciences."

A national search for the center’s coordinating director is ongoing, with an appointment expected soon. The center's official launch will take place in October.