Cultivating Calm

The gang-ridden urban environment of Hialeah, Florida, was already a tough place for a bright 12-year-old Cuban American boy named Frank Diaz to grow up, but when his parents split up, the bad situation got worse. Diaz began having behavior issues in school—started running with the wrong kids.

It would be easy to imagine Diaz growing into an even rockier adulthood, trapped by circumstances and bad decisions. But that's not what happened. Today, as an assistant professor of music education at the UO, Diaz is researching the very thing that turned his life around, and exploring how to use it to help others.

By eighth grade, Diaz remembers, he was "emotionally devastated by my parents' breakup," and as a result was taking prescription antianxiety medication. "It completely numbed me," he says.

One of his teachers, Miss P., noticed how his wandering mind was hindering him in school. "She really cared," Diaz recalls. And her care turned into a surprising action. "She sat me down," he says, "and for just five minutes had me thinking about my breath and my thoughts."

The results were immediate and dramatic. "It calmed me right down. I quickly learned I didn't have to be the anger that was getting me down—I didn't have to let it derail my life. My ability to focus got better and better." He avidly embraced the technique—a form of what he would later come to know as mindfulness meditation—and, with his symptoms mostly gone, was soon telling his counselor he no longer needed medication. "I would never have gotten out of high school without the skills Miss P. gave me," he says.

After graduating, he enrolled at Florida State University (FSU), where he further explored the workings of his own mind, learning even more about how to deal with his thoughts and impulses. "I grew up in a Cuban macho culture where reacting is the first move," he says, "but I learned I didn't have to do that . . . and my grades skyrocketed."

As a music education major, Diaz played the trombone in many bands and orchestras—but suffered from terrible bouts of performance anxiety. In his junior year, he had an idea: "Why don't I meditate before I play?" It worked. The anxious thoughts still arose, but he saw them in a larger context, one that offered him more choices. He likens this inner shift to the difference between the panic associated with standing in a confined space—say a coat closet—right next to a blazing five-log fire and, in contrast, the same fire burning in the vast space of a cavernous aircraft hanger—a situation offering many options for thoughtful response.

Frank Diaz, assistant professor of music education at the UO School of Music and Dance. Photograph courtesy of the School of Music and Dance.

After graduation, he began teaching music to high school students. He introduced his often-unruly marching band kids to breathing and stretching exercises, with an emphasis on mindfulness.

The result? "They were quiet, had better behavior, were more focused and less mean to each other," he says.

Diaz tells the story of a sophomore trumpeter who had more than his share of problems at school. The student requested that the band "do the breathing thing" at the next day's practice. Diaz prodded a bit and learned that the teenager felt the exercises provided a rare bit of calm and peace, "so that all the bad things in my life can't strangle me."

The boy's comment moved Diaz. "I got the message loud and clear that this was important stuff."

Important enough that when Diaz came to the UO to help run a summer marching band camp, he used his innovative methods with the young players. "The kids loved it," he says, and quickly dubbed the practice boga, short for band yoga. The Register-Guard did a lighthearted story about the camp and boga; Diaz noted how easily accepted the innovation was in Oregon—a far cry from the reception he imagined a similar story might provoke in the South.

After a few years of teaching, he returned to FSU to earn his doctorate, with a goal of eventually becoming an orchestra conductor. He focused his research on the connections between music and mindfulness and produced a scientific study that would change his career direction.

Simply described, the study compared responses of two groups of listeners, mostly music majors, to a piece of music (a section of Puccini's opera La Bohème). One group had done a short mindfulness exercise before listening; the other had not. Those who preceded the session with the exercise described their experience with words such as "overwhelming!" and reported increased "novelty"; that is, they heard things in the music they had not heard before and had a richer listening experience.

"It literally made a difference in how they heard," Diaz explains.

He published the results in a paper, "Mindfulness, Attention, and Flow during Music Listening: An Empirical Investigation," that appeared in 2011 in the journal Psychology of Music. The paper helped redirect his career path toward teaching—and more research.

Now, as a UO professor, Diaz helps prepare future music teachers to succeed in their own classrooms. How might these students be taught tools for mindfulness that they can pass on to their own students? And how might the tools benefit the future teachers themselves, who are headed into a profession notorious for its high level of burnout? Could mindfulness practice lead to more focused and relaxed teachers whose reduced stress levels help them have the energy to better lead and inspire the students in their classrooms?

In each of those classrooms, there may be a kid like the young Frank Diaz, talented but troubled, in jeopardy of falling through the cracks, maybe lucky enough to meet some version of Miss P.

"It is work I believe can make a huge difference," Diaz says.

Mindfulness: A Hot Topic

At the UO, meditation is attracting a great deal of interest—both as a subject for research and as a tool to help students focus.

In light of some five million deaths per year attributable to tobacco smoking, it is difficult to imagine a more promising avenue of research than that described in the recent paper titled "Brief Meditation Training Induces Smoking Reduction," coauthored by UO professor emeritus of psychology Michael I. Posner and Yi-Yuan Tang, formerly a research professor at the UO.

Posner discussed his findings on campus last fall at a symposium titled "The Science of Mindfulness and Meditation."

"We booked a room that held 80 and were nervous it would be empty," says Cris Niell, an assistant professor of biology and one of the event organizers. "But we got an overflow crowd of about 130 people from across campus—in psychology, neuroscience, human physiology, and numerous other areas."

The symposium led to a retreat (and plans for another), at which psychology researchers, grad students, postdocs, and faculty members explored the topic further. One "journal club" meets regularly to discuss articles on mindfulness published in academic journals; another group (humorously dubbed the "contemplative neuroscience silent discussion group") meets on campus for weekly group meditation and discussion.

Mindfulness is also becoming a part of the student experience at the UO.

"Mindfulness is woven into the question of what higher education needs to do and be in the 21st century," says Lisa Freinkel, vice provost for undergraduate studies. "Students need to be focused and expansive in their thinking, and these habits of mind, which mindfulness fosters, are increasingly difficult for students immersed in pervasive digital technology."

—By Ross West, MFA '84