Amherst Magazine

Thinking Compassionate Thoughts

By Peter Rooney

[Faculty] Chances are, the first words that you associate with mindfulness are not physics or economics. So how is it that two Amherst faculty members from those fields are in charge of two organizations devoted to the concepts of mindfulness and contemplative practice?

“Fortunate births, perhaps?” offers Daniel Barbezat, professor of economics and executive director of the Northampton-based Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Professor Daniel Barbezat heads the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Barbezat, along with Professor Emeritus of Physics Arthur Zajonc, have made Amherst a leader in the burgeoning effort to incorporate meditation and other contemplative practices into mainstream education.

Zajonc heads the Mind & Life Institute, which has a new home on South Pleasant Street, in a house it is leasing from the college. The building was the home of Amherst’s third president, Edward Hitchcock.

Zajonc and Barbezat are working together on a project, supported with a $1 million donation to Mind & Life from the Dalai Lama, to integrate the principles of compassion and kindness into a secular curriculum. The project “aims to cultivate human ethics in every school around the world in a way that doesn’t project our own values but is based on the fundamental principle of compassion,” Zajonc says. He says it will be “inclusive of every religion” and will also serve those who are nonbelievers, agnostic or atheist: “You don’t have to be a person of faith to lead a moral life. The Dalai Lama has used the phrase ‘beyond religion’ to describe this initiative.”

Zajonc also organized a recent six-day conference in India that convened Western scientists and philosophers and several thousand Tibetan Buddhist monastics. The event celebrated the launch of a new science curriculum for monastic students.

While at Amherst, Zajonc created what has become the dominant program for educators worldwide who want to introduce elements of contemplation and mindfulness in their courses. Barbezat has taught several economics courses that integrate such themes, including “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and he has two forthcoming books targeted to educators, including one on using contemplative techniques to improve student learning.

Mindfulness—and the Mind & Life Institute—has an enthusiastic backer in President Biddy Martin. “It is hard to imagine anything more urgent,” she says, “than the forms of awareness, contemplation and empathy that the institute promotes or the interdisciplinary thinking it encourages.”

A succinct definition of mindfulness comes from the expert Jon Kabat-Zinn: “paying attention in a particular way—on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” When described that way, it sounds much like what a professor of economics or physics does every day.

Top photo by Samuel Masinter '04; bottom photo by Rob Mattson