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UW prof helps cultivate healthy minds during pandemic through YouTube meditations
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UW prof helps cultivate healthy minds during pandemic through YouTube meditations

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More people than ever are struggling with mental health problems due to the novel coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout, and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Richard Davidson said there are solid scientific findings to support this.

“There are data that have come from China that have already been published on the psychological devastation caused by COVID-19. Rates of depression and anxiety and suicide have been skyrocketing,” said Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry.

“I do think that this is sort of the underbelly of this pandemic that hasn’t yet been fully exposed and addressed,” he said. “And I think that it’s really important that we take this aspect of the current situation seriously.”

Davidson is founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the UW-Madison and Healthy Minds Innovations, an affiliated nonprofit designed to use science to cultivate and measure well-being.

Since early April, through his affiliated Healthy Minds Innovations, Davidson has been offering free YouTube meditation videos. Davidson generally leads the sessions once a week and has five other teachers who rotate, including Daniela Labra Cardero, who leads a meditation in Spanish on Mondays.

Davidson has led meditations and given talks that can be found on YouTube, but his meditation sessions haven’t been available in a formal way before. Healthy Minds Innovations has also made its Healthy Minds Program app available for free.

One of the virtues of meditation, Davidson said, is that it doesn’t require any pill and the practitioner doesn’t need to buy anything.

Some people join the Healthy Minds Innovations meditations live, but they are on YouTube to be viewed anytime. In real time, practitioners can check in through a chat box from places around the globe.

Davidson’s session on May 21 included people from Brazil, Argentina, Austria, Italy, Canada, California, Washington, North Carolina, Vermont and New Mexico, as well as New Berlin, Platteville, Middleton and Madison.

They typed in their various states of mind, from calm, connected and appreciated, to challenged, anxious, lonely and tense.

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One practitioner was “determined to make things work.” Another thanked Davidson for “generously gathering people together for this opportunity.”

Davidson said because meditation is so versatile, practitioners can learn to cultivate useful skills. “It’s a very powerful strategy for transforming our everyday lives in ways that really will promote optimal human flourishing.”

In his meditations during the pandemic, Davidson has often talked about how the term “social distancing,” created by public health officials, is an unfortunate choice of words.

“We’re really being asked to physically distance, but we can remain socially connected,” he said during an interview. “I think that the possibility and the opportunity for social connection is more important now than it ever has been before.”

He often highlights a capacity psychologists and neuroscientists call meta-awareness, which is the ability to know what our minds are actually doing.

Davidson said that this is a consciousness that can be harnessed, cultivated and trained. He said scientific findings indicate that a large percentage of the time, people report that they’re not paying attention to what they’re doing.

An example he gave during a recent video meditation was the distraction that might happen while reading a book. A person may read a page, even a second page, and then realize they haven’t really read it. Their mind is somewhere else.

“This has obvious deleterious effects,” he said. “If we can learn to be present more fully, learn to appreciate what it is we have in front of us, so to speak, the world would really be a very different place.”

Magazine honoree

Davidson is known for his work studying emotion and the brain. He has led conversations about well-being on international stages such as the World Economic Forum, where he’s on the Global Council on Mental Health.

In 2006, Time magazine named Davidson one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Davidson has a personal and professional friendship with the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the spiritual leader of Tibet, that dates to 1992. Davidson said the Dalai Lama has been to Madison about 16 times since his exile from China, and probably half of those visits were at Davidson’s invitation.

A public appeal

Jocelyn Harmon, vice president of marketing at Healthy Minds Innovations, said the meditation videos came about as people affected by the current crisis requested coronavirus-specific offerings.

People were yearning for a daily connection, she said, and the videos offer a sense of community. “Even if we’re practicing separately in our own little worlds, we’re able to be participating at the same time together,” Harmon said.

Some of the meditations have only a couple hundred views on YouTube, but, as of Thursday, Healthy Minds Innovations’ YouTube channel had just more than 2,100 subscribers. Its live streams on Facebook attract more viewers and have been gaining strength throughout the pandemic.

“We’re a small but mighty brand,” Harmon said. “We started a YouTube channel two months ago ... We started with zero subscribers two months ago. So we’re pretty excited to be adding so many people daily.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct one erroneous reference to the Healthy Minds Innovations.] 

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