Physicist, Economist Tapped to Head Leading Mindfulness Organizations

Submitted on Friday, 1/6/2012, at 4:00 PM

Professor of Economics Daniel Barbezat has been named executive director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, succeeding Professor of Physics Emeritus Arthur Zajonc, who has been appointed president of the Mind & Life Institute.

Zajonc, who formally took up his appointment in January, succeeds R. Adam Engle, a Mind & Life co-founder who served as the president and chair of the Institute for more than two decades. The Mind & Life Institute, headquartered in Boulder, Colo., is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a scientific understanding of the mind through the investigation of contemplative practices, in order to reduce suffering and promote well-being.

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Arthur Zajonc, left, and Daniel Barbezat

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, based in Northampton, Mass., has developed initiatives since the 1970s to integrate contemplative awareness and contemporary life in order to help create a more just, compassionate, reflective and sustainable society. The Center’s current primary area of focus is higher education, and it holds annual retreats, conferences and intensive summer sessions; creates publications and identifies useful resources; and connects like-minded individuals and organizations through initiatives such as the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.

“Although they are distinct organizations, I definitely think of them as integrated as well,” Barbezat said of the Institute and the Center. “There’s lots of potential for cross-pollination.”

Over the past decade, Barbezat said, he has become interested in how self-awareness and introspection can be used in higher education and economic decision-making. He has developed courses, including one titled “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness,” that integrate contemplative exercises designed to enable students to gain deeper understanding and insight.

Barbezat’s approach to these economics classes has been featured in The Boston Globe and U.S. News & World Report, as well as on the NPR program Here & Now. Since 2009, he has been working with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society as a board member and associate director of The Academic Program. He is currently writing a handbook of contemplative practices in higher education with Mirabai Bush, while editing a group of papers with Zajonc and a book entitled Wanting.

Though Zajonc retired from Amherst following the Fall 2011 semester, Barbezat will remain a professor at the college and foresees no difficulties juggling his two roles. “For a long time, my own academic work has been focused in this area,” Barbezat said. “It will be more work, but I think it will be more complementary work.”

It may seem unusual that two prominent mindfulness organizations are being led by Amherst professors, but it makes sense to Barbezat. “It’s partially serendipity, but Amherst certainly supports and encourages thinking outside one’s discipline,” Barbezat said. “With an open curriculum, in which there are many opportunities to collaborate with colleagues outside one’s discipline, it doesn’t surprise me that this has arisen out of a liberal arts context, where there is so much potential for multidisciplinary learning, teaching and contact.”

In an earlier interview with Amherst magazine, in which he reflected about his work at the interfaces of science, spirituality and education, Zajonc also discussed the opportunities that Amherst has provided him to collaborate with other faculty on courses and projects. “I’ve worked with [Professor of Art and the History of Art] Joel Upton on ‘Erôs and Insight,’ a first-year seminar where meditation is a theme,” he said. “I’ve also taught ‘Science, Values and Spiritual Traditions,’ with contemplative exercises throughout. The contemplative is almost a covert part of the curriculum in many liberal arts colleges. If you’re going to stand before a great painting, you’re drawn into the thrall of the painting, and it works its kind of magic. That doesn’t mean that you don’t then do the art-historical analysis and study the biography of the painter and the techniques. But there’s a deep dimension of art, as there is to the sciences, economics and all disciplines. In many instances, that’s what excites us about our disciplines.”

 

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