Proposal to the Institute for Advanced Study: Symposium Award on â€śTimeâ€?
The Present Moment Project
Creating a Contemplative Environment for Stress Reduction on Campus
Henry Emmons, M.D.
Adjunct Faculty, Center for Spirituality and Healing, Academic Health Center
Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, College of Design
Assistant Professor of Time & Interactivity, Department of Art, College of Liberal Arts
Time Sickness and Stress
The physician Larry Dossey has described our contemporary condition in America and throughout much of the world, as â€śtime sickâ€?, meaning we are obsessed with time - primarily with the feeling that there is a lack of time - hence we must do everything faster. Our ability to enjoy the present moment is lost as we rush through our day worried about past and future events. Stress results and impacts health: 75 to 90 percent of visits to primary care physicians in America are stress related, and stress is being increasingly felt by students and children as young as five years old.
Premise of the Present Moment Project
If contemporary life is generally equated with a stressful life, then restoration from stress is a necessity. Workloads in corporate and campus life are high, and the physical environments of offices and classrooms are often generic at best, and frequently dismal. The student study lounge at Nolte Hall is an example of an uninspiring space, yet people use it because they need quiet places for study and recharging. And while Nolte Hall is also the home of the Institute for Advanced Study - nothing in its physical environment signals the intentions of the Institute - therefore we propose it as an appropriate setting for the Present Moment Project: exploratory investigations in the creation of a contemplative environment for stress reduction on campus.
Contemplation and Nature: Vehicles for Stress Reduction
The beneficial effects for the body through meditation or contemplation (defined as focused attention on the present moment) have been well documented by research and are exemplified by â€śrelaxation and slowed metabolism...improved concentration and empathyâ€¦an overall improvement in health, and more effective performance from sports and academic test-taking to creativity.â€?
The research of environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, Roger S. Ulrich and others, has indicated that contact with nature, especially vegetation has a beneficial effect on physical and psychological health. Ulrichâ€™s studies have tested direct contact with nature, nature videos and photos of nature â€“ and they all have produced faster and greater recovery from stress as shown by lower blood pressure, less muscle tension, and greater reduction in anger and increased feeling of well being.
Design of the Present Moment Projectâ€™s Contemplative Environment
Our intention is to initiate a series of investigations and ephemeral transformations of a portion of the Nolte Study Lounge in order to facilitate our understanding of how to create an effective contemplative environment. The lounge will not become a room where meditation or contemplative techniques are taught through classes - instead a portion of the lounge will be redesigned with the goal of the space itself being able to begin the process of inducing a contemplative response in the visitor. There is no single definition of a â€ścontemplative environmentâ€?, but we are defining it as one that assists the focus on the present moment - quieting the mind and facilitating a developmental process where the individual has more choice over their thoughts.
Within this contemplative environment we further propose to develop a simple yet poetic biofeedback interface - to offer the benefits that are made accessible through traditional biofeedback - but in an aesthetic and sensual way. Our intention is to alter a biofeedback interface such as a fingertip monitor that records heart rate, and re-imagine the display modality as an aesthetic pattern of image, kinesthetic movement, or sound. Through this poetic feedback experience, the individual can discover that they can slow their heart rate and can be actively involved in their own stress reduction. Engaging with this biofeedback interface would be completely up to the individual, similar to if one is at the U of MN Recreation Center you have the choice of using hand sensors on workout equipment to see your heart rate. We will evaluate ways of providing support and information to individuals in the Nolte Lounge interested in engaging the biofeedback interface.
Our design of the contemplative environment will be informed by the following strategies:
â€˘ Contact with nature: This may include - natural materials or phenomena, visual projections and/or sounds of nature.
â€˘ â€śBeing awayâ€?: This is one of the key attributes of a restorative experience as posited by the Kaplans: being away can refer to a sense of physical separation from your everyday world or a sense of being removed from your everyday activities.
â€˘ Reductive design: The reductive palette of many contemplative spaces suggests the validity of â€śoverloadâ€? and â€śarousalâ€? theories that posit that human perceptual systems can become overloaded and stressed in places that have a great deal of complexity.
â€˘ Visual central focus: Contemplating a distinctive visual focus helps to arrest attention and assist the focus on the present moment.
We are proposing that this contemplative environment will be a â€śoverlayâ€? on the existing Nolte Study Lounge â€“ for example, something may be a suspended in front of the walls, a new type of surface element may be added over the top of the existing floor. We may add lighting, sculptural object(s), new seating elements. The biofeedback interface may be integrated into the seating, in a pillow-like object, or into something wearable, like a glove or shawl.
We are planning that this initial phase of the Present Moment Project will result in a temporary installation, probably one-two months in duration. During this one-two month period, we may test more than one iteration of ideas â€“ those that we bring and those that may emerge as we involve visitor/participants of IAS/Nolte in the process. We view this proposal as setting the stage for a year two of the Present Moment Project: a more long-term installation and testing of the Project, at Nolte or elsewhere.
To begin the process of assessing the effectiveness of our contemplative environment, we will evaluate and select from the following methodologies: survey people in Nolte Lounge via questionnaire/interview before the contemplative environment is added and after it is installed; employ a feedback book onsite and/or a feedback blog; assess the effectiveness of the biofeedback interface through observation/survey.
Significance of the Project
Our goal with the Present Moment Project is to weave a contemplative environment into a campus setting, making it part of daily life. As contemplative environments are generally regarded as separate rarified realms (such as meditation centers or stress reduction clinics), the Project has the potential to be an important prototype of a contemplative environment that is publicly accessible and socially engaged. We also plan that our biofeedback interface will be something not seen before. We are interested in shifting biofeedbackâ€™s orientation from a purely medical, clinical context to a visual, spatial context. The participant will gain physiological information and insight, but in a way that is not distancing as through a medical device (the â€śotherâ€?) but in a way that feels integral to the person and environment. Our creative research recontextualizes ideas of contemplative space and biofeedback as it draws upon medicine, biotechnology, contemplative gardens, new media art, new materials research, and the phenomenology of interior architectural spaces and the human body. As stress is epidemic in our country, new strategies for stress reduction; especially ones that can be inserted effectively into our daily lives have immense possibility for reducing stress and promoting wellness.