Dr. Diana Koszycki is one of the founders of the new academy. Photo: Courtesy of Diana Koszycki.
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U of O to see new initiatives focusing on brain health, awareness, contemplation

On Oct. 3, as part of Brain Health Awareness Week on campus, a new initiative was launched at the University of Ottawa to help students familiarize themselves with the relationship between mental health and mindfulness—the state of consciousness or awareness.

The initiative, called the Academy of Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies, was founded by six members from the U of O’s Faculties of Medicine and Arts.

Dr. Diana Koszycki, a professor of counselling psychology and psychiatry at the U of O, said that this initiative aims not just to kick-start new research in the field of psychological health, but to provide professors and researchers with a place to meet and discuss their work.

The academy will also place a focus on research, training, integrating mindfulness into pedagogy, and public outreach, and graduate students will have the opportunity to connect with professors and perform their own research in the field.

The idea of the academy itself was first suggested four years ago, but it took some time to be fully realized. The founders searched for an institute to house the project, before finally reaching an agreement with the U of O Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Despite being targeted towards graduate and medical students, the academy does offer some benefits to the undergraduate community, namely in the form of a pilot course called Mindfulness, Contemplation, and the Search for Meaning, which will be launched in January 2017.

In an email to the Fulcrum, the course’s co-founder, Dr. Anne Vallely, discussed mindfulness and initiatives directed towards it, as well as the development of the new course. Vallely is also a professor of religious studies at the U of O, specializing in Jainism.

“I was motivated to integrate contemplative practices because I wanted students to explore traditions not as relics but as alternative ways of knowing,” said Vallely, who believes that studying diverse traditions allows for a greater insight into knowing.

“When André Vellino and I (with Diana Koszycski) were working to create the Academy of Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies, we talked about the idea of having a course that introduced students to the new field of Contemplative Studies—a truly interdisciplinary new field of study, uniting the Sciences and the Humanities in the exploration of first-person modes of inquiry integrated with third-person methods of modern science.”

Dr. André Vellino is a professor at the U of O’s School of Information Studies who also teaches Buddhist meditation.

The course itself will explore “contemplative practices in the world’s religious and wisdom teachings and will host a number of speakers to speak on diverse, but related, topics, such as contemplation and nature, contemplation and health, (and) contemplation and the brain,” according to Vallely.

In terms of the academy itself, Vallely believes it is important because “research has consistently shown that contemplative strategies have the potential to enhance cognitive skills, such as improve concentration and general academic performance, as well as increase capacities such as creativity and interpersonal skills.”

The new Mindfulness Academy is one of two such institutions in the country, and with the continued growth of the movement towards mindfulness and meditation, the U of O is one step closer to becoming a leader in mental health research and the application of mindfulness techniques in the realm of education.