A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Raising Consciousness

By Corey Jenkins Schaut, MPA '07 on April 1, 2009

Humans have been intrigued by their own consciousness since, well, they were conscious.

Formerly considered the realm of philosophers and pop psychologists, broader academic circles have begun to take interest in the topic of consciousness and explore it from various perspectives. Today, scholars in neuroscience, psychology, religious studies, business, leadership studies, and health, among others, are interested in how a person’s mindfulness can transform health and well-being in individuals and organizations.

This spring, Mason joins the ranks of academic institutions around the world seeking to better understand the role of human consciousness and transformational change. The university recently announced the creation of the Center for Consciousness and Transformation, a new institute founded through a $10 million gift from the de Laski Family Foundation.

Understanding the Mind–Body Connection

The study of consciousness is essentially the study of self, according to psychologist Mark Thurston, the center’s senior fellow. A recently appointed faculty member, Thurston has spent 35 years in the field teaching those interested in the different traditions of meditation and helping others develop better self-awareness and creativity that can be used to transform oneself in interpersonal relationships at home and in the workplace.

Consciousness practices have become more prevalent in recent decades, especially related to health. During the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, as many as 4 in 10 Americans reported using some type of complementary or alternative technique such as biofeedback, meditation, or yoga.

Those techniques generally offer significant stress-lowering benefits and have gained in popularity. In the business community, increasing numbers of executives look to consciousness-sharpening techniques to boost their mental agility. Companies from AstraZeneca and Hughes Aircraft to Apple and Google offer employee meditation or yoga classes to help lower stress, improve morale, and boost productivity through increased calmness, intuitive decision-making, and improved concentration.

Such results have piqued scientific interest, particularly in understanding how these demonstrated benefits happen and how consciousness relates. Because consciousness can be difficult to quantify—and scientists live by measurable, replicable results—Thurston has seen a broadening of the ways consciousness has been studied.

“We’ve really had to develop new and more sophisticated methodologies of doing research to bring consciousness into the bigger scientific conversation,” Thurston notes. “We have made significant progress with that over the past 30 to 40 years.”

There is still progress to be made, he believes, and herein lies Mason’s opportunity.

Building a World-Class Center

Mason’s interdisciplinary nature makes it the perfect place to contribute to the burgeoning consciousness research, according to Thurston.

“Mason has rather permeable walls between departments and units,” he says. “The respect between different disciplines and units is evident, and it really fosters interdisciplinary learning and research.”

Nearly 40 Mason faculty members from across the university have been helping plan the center’s work and determine its long-term goals. Seven of these faculty serve on the center’s advisory board. The center currently has three staff members.

“We have really honed our definition of consciousness and transformation to find our common interests,” says psychology professor Lois Tetrick, who directs the center. “We’re beginning to understand how we will study consciousness and transformation from our different perspectives.”

Such collaboration is at the heart of it all, according to Tetrick, who also directs Mason’s Industrial/Organizational Psychology Program, with the center initially pulling itself together from existing classes, research, and resources from around campus. Once the center is fully operational, it will expand its offerings into original programming.

That programming will offer students credit and noncredit courses that explore the study of consciousness and transformation, undertake research projects across disciplines that expand the field’s knowledge, and present student life programs designed to provide practical applications of the center’s work.

Research will be one of the first areas of focus. The center began offering minigrants this spring to research teams from across Mason’s schools and units. These grants are funding projects that cross such disciplines as the arts, conflict resolution, psychology, communications, and health, to name a few.

A Transformative Vision

Nance Lucas, associate dean and associate professor in New Century College (the new center’s home), envisions myriad uses for the research that will result. She cites areas such as leadership, positive aging, and posttraumatic stress disorder treatment as just a few. She notes that federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense might use such research to advance the medical fields and assist the armed services.

“We’re socialized to think about improving weaknesses,” Lucas says. “In clinical diagnoses, we’re trained to identify what’s wrong with a person. With a center like ours, we can shift the focus to what’s right and how we can use that positivity to lead healthier, more productive lives.”

Lucas foresees the center offering its classes to students beyond traditional college age. Programs for adult learning communities and K–12 students are possibilities for the future, she notes, as well as online classes open to all.

“Students of all ages will find many pathways into the center,” she says.

On the Fairfax Campus, center staff hope to eventually offer undergraduates a Living Learning Community, similar to existing programs available through New Century College. The benefit of these communities, according to Lucas, is the extension of learning beyond the classroom. Students in the community could host lectures with visiting scholars, movie discussion nights with professors on topics around consciousness, or other special programs—all in the comfort of their residence hall.

“Our goal is to develop a vibrant community of students, faculty and staff, and experts from around the world who come to Mason to be a part of the center,” Lucas says.

Thurston also imagines the benefits extending to other practical applications. He is working closely with Mason’s University Life Office to develop various programs for students. The programs will be designed to promote self-awareness. “As we know ourselves better, we can then engage in helping to transform our families and our workplace and our society,” he says.

Lucas notes that there is no center quite like this one on the East Coast of the United States. She along with Tetrick and Thurston envision the center growing to have local, regional, and international impact.

“This center will affect at least 10 million people within 10 years,” Lucas predicts.


A Vision Comes to Life

For Don and Nancy de Laski, philanthropy is fun. But the couple’s enthusiasm for giving back has been done with so little fanfare that few know the true impact of their generosity.

Through the de Laski Family Foundation, the couple has provided significant support to local arts and culture organizations. In recent years, the couple’s gifts to Mason have totaled nearly $4 million, which, among other things, helped to establish the Potomac Arts Academy and launch the expansion of the Performing Arts Building on the Fairfax Campus.

After working as a certified public accountant, Don de Laski along with his son, Kenneth, founded Deltek Systems in 1983. The successful company provides project management software to businesses, including federal government contractors. Nancy de Laski is a former Realtor and broker and a longtime volunteer on a number of nonprofit organizations’ boards.

William Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, says the de Laskis like to use their capacity to build community.

“They invest in things they value,” says Reeder. “Don and Nancy want to invite all voices to the table—supporting, opposing, or just curious.”

Don and Nancy de Laski

Don and Nancy de Laski

Their most recent investment at Mason involves another passion of theirs—the study of consciousness and transformation. Their recent $10 million commitment ensured Mason could found the Center for Consciousness and Transformation.

For years, the couple has studied spirituality and consciousness, including its implications for health and wellness and how it affects creativity. A little over a year ago, at a seminar taught by Thurston, Don remarked how wonderful it would be for classes on these subjects to be offered at the university level. That conversation led to discussions with various individuals at Mason, where the idea was met with enthusiasm. The center quickly moved from a concept to reality, and the couple is excited about its potential.

“Part of our vision is that a successful new center at Mason will lead to other universities providing similar courses, and thus a higher level of consciousness might be developed throughout the world,” Don observes.

Nancy adds, “We hope that by studying consciousness, students will attain more purpose-driven lives and thereby affect the world’s future in many fields—creative, medicine, government, research, and peace.”

“Such renewal starts in small ways, in places like a university classroom or research lab, and there’s a ripple effect,” Thurston notes. “The center has the potential to be a legacy for the de Laskis because of that ripple effect.”

“This is their life’s passion,” says Lucas. “I think, for the de Laskis, this new center will allow their dream to come true at a place they love. They know that no place other than Mason could establish this center with such a worldwide reach.”

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