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What It’s Like To Get A Master’s Degree In Mindfulness

…And why would you need one, anyway?

What It’s Like To Get A Master’s Degree In Mindfulness
[Image: LoloStock on Shutterstock]

To master mindfulness, you do not need a master’s in mindfulness. But starting this year, those who want a professional degree in the meditative practice can get one.

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In a first-of-its-kind program in the U.S., Cambridge, Mass.-based Lesley University this year began offering a Master of Arts in Mindfulness Studies. The degree requires two years of study and 36 credits at $925 a pop (that’s $33,300 if you’re counting). Course work is a mixture of theory and practice. Readings include books published by the forefather of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and studies about the effects of meditation on health, education, and business. Other requirements include an internship, capstone project (thesis), and attending a week-long silent retreat.

But, beyond adding an M.A. to one’s accolades, what are the applications for a degree in mindfulness?

There are plenty of ways to lead a mindful life without having to pay a university. Really, it only requires acting mindfully, the New Age term for living in the moment, as opposed to multitasking or letting a thousand different ideas run through your head. For those looking for formal training, there are almost 1,000 certified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teachers in nearly every state in the U.S., according to Time. For a fee, these classes, some of them based at universities, teach mindfulness and meditation through various exercises, and, of course, actual meditation. As for academic pursuits, various universities across the U.S. have research centers and classes that integrate theory and practice into the curriculum.

The master’s program at Lesley came out of the MBSR course. The architect of the degree, Nancy Waring, in 1984 studied under Kabat-Zinn, who developed the MBSR program in 1979. Waring has a PhD in English from Cornell, and spent some time in academia before pursuing a career in journalism. In 2001, she returned to university life to work in Lesley’s interdisciplinary studies program. After a professor at Brown launched a contemplative studies class, Waring decided to develop the first course in mindfulness at Lesley in 2004, focusing on theory and practice. Later she added a scientific component to it. “It was extremely unusual for anything like that to be taking place at the time,” Waring told Fast Company.

Over the last 10 years, Waring added more mindfulness classes to the roster at Lesley, with courses like “Mindful Leadership and Social Engagement” and “Mindful Communication,” broadening the study to more practical endeavors. Later, the school added a specialization in mindfulness, then a five-course advanced certification. She said she would have proposed a master’s back in 2004, but that she knew she needed to demonstrate the field’s potential for academic rigorousness to the administration first. “There has always been some concern in academia–although not me personally–that the students are being trained to ‘be’ something,” she says, and that a mindfulness degree can’t be directly applied to a recognized profession like teaching or medicine.

What separates Waring’s course from MBSR training is “academic inquiry into key findings from 25 years of research,” she wrote in the book Contemplative Learning Across Disciplines. Students don’t just learn to practice meditation and live mindfully, but they contemplate and discuss the literature from Buddhist writings to modern studies. In addition, the class itself acts as a stress reducer for students, who often report anxiety and depression.

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The informational page on Lesley’s website, however, emphasizes more practical pursuits. “You’ll be prepared to bring mindfulness skills and knowledge into a variety of fields,” including business, health care, and education, it says. Indeed, one of students doing an internship now is implementing mindfulness in hospice centers and another is introducing mindful practices into schools on Cape Cod.

Applications in these areas make sense, and are already happening: Researchers have used mindfulness to help at-risk youth; students in a California school had fewer suspensions after a year of mindfulness training. One study found that hospice volunteers trained in mindfulness had better relationships with patients.

Still, do those pursuits necessitate a graduate degree? Yes, argues Linda Coleman, who is currently working on her application to Lesley for next year. “You have to have some sort of credibility,” she says.

Coleman isn’t exactly sure what she’d want to do with her master’s–yet. With her kids out of the house now, she wants to switch professional gears, ending her career as a librarian for something that involves helping people. Coleman recently got trained as a hospice care worker and a spiritual care volunteer. Obtaining the MA in mindfulness studies will help her develop skills to better listen to people, she says. “As I am cultivating this practice of mindfulness, I am able to be in that space in a way that I wouldn’t be otherwise,” she said. “I am learning to be present.”

Sure, she could learn “to be present” without dedicating her time and money to a degree. But Coleman wants the heft of an MA in case she decides to run her own retreat or teach. She’s also in the luxurious position of wanting and being able to afford to go back to school.

One thing notably missing from the curriculum is a research component, an obvious way to legitimize and spread the discipline. In 2007, the NIH declared that research on mindfulness had to be “more rigorous,” and since has funded 50 clinical trials, according to Time. People want to know more about the claims bolstering the mindfulness revolution. Research from an academic institution would provide further justification for mindfulness as an academic pursuit, and possibly highlight other professional implementations.

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Waring recognizes the potential of research, but also notes that the program is new. “We certainly intend to broaden our university as a center for mindfulness, and are really looking forward to collaborations that will lead to research projects,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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