15 Nov 2022

Exploring the Power of Mindful Connections

By uci_admin
Tim Downing

Mindfulness and biomedical engineering may seem to be worlds apart, but Tim Downing, PhD, made the connection. The result is “Empathy & Interconnectedness,” a course that explores a mindful approach to empathy with the intent to improve relationships and increase compassion.

Downing, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UCI, was investigating how mechanical cues integrate with and give rise to disease-driving epigenetic mutations, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced his lab to shut down, wreaking havoc on his professional life. He decided to try the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course offered by the Samueli Institute to help faculty and staff deal more effectively with stresses of the time.

“We were in the course when George Floyd died, and it was like this thing that connected everybody in the room,” he said.

“We could all show up in this very mindful space of building more self-awareness and understanding of how other people see things, and I thought it was really powerful.”

While there is still much to learn about mindfulness meditation, research has shown that it may produce demonstrable effects on brain and immune function and has moderate efficacy in reducing mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and pain.

Downing, who has joint appointments in biomedical engineering and microbiology and molecular genetics, also serves as an equity advisor for the Samueli School of Engineering. He wondered whether a mindfulness course might be a way to address equity issues among colleagues.

“I just felt that the practice of mindfulness could be a really powerful tool for promoting literacy in and an appreciation for interconnectedness on campus, and to help people approach our differences with openness and embrace the realization that we don’t live in a binary world. Nothing in biology or nature is really binary,” he said.

Jessica Drew de Paz
“How do we deliver these healing practices to diverse populations? And how do we expand the notion that mindful meditation isn’t only an inward journey?” – Jessica Drew De Paz, PsyD, director of Mindfulness Programs

Downing presented his idea to Samueli Institute mindfulness course instructors Monisha Vasa, MD, and Cayce Howe. Seeing potential, the pair began developing the concept in collaboration with Downing and Jessica Drew De Paz, PsyD, director of Mindfulness Programs for the institute.

During the year, Drew De Paz had moved the institute’s mindfulness service in new directions, introducing programs such as “Mindful Self-Compassion for the Transgender Community” and “Sustainable Caring” for UCI Health nurses. The proposed Empathy & Interconnectedness course intrigued her.

“In the early part of my career, my focus was on combating racism,” said Drew De Paz. “More recently, as I’ve been bringing mindfulness programs to the community, I’d begun to ask how we do both? How do we deliver these healing practices to diverse populations? And how do we expand the notion that mindful meditation isn’t only an inward journey?”

Empathy & Interconnectedness could be an opportunity to introduce people to aspects of mindfulness that enable self-empathy and compassion, as well as empathy for others. This would hopefully lead to an appreciation for the way we are all connected.

“Our goal in developing the course was to encourage our students to broaden their ways of conceptualizing mindfulness,” said Vasa, who is also a board-certified general and addiction psychiatrist. “Mindfulness is of course beneficial for our own mental health and emotional and physical wellbeing. But mindfulness can also help us listen better, understand better, accept better, serve better. These are skills that we can learn and practice and actively put to
good use in the world.”

Although Downing proposed the course for the School of Engineering, the Samueli Institute, School of Engineering and UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence together determined that it should be offered to all UCI faculty and staff.

Joseph Morales
“Connecting mindfulness to anti-racism was something that really blew my mind.” – Joseph Morales, PhD, associate director for Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships in the Office of Inclusive Excellence

Joseph Morales, PhD, associate director for Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships in the Office of Inclusive Excellence, was among the first cohort enrolled in the course. “I think there are many preconceptions about what mindfulness might be,” Morales said.

“Even I was resistant at the beginning. The way that my colleagues were exploring it [in the course] was different. It was challenging our understanding of mindfulness and pushing its potential as a lever for change on campus.”

Morales oversees the Inclusive Excellence Certificate Program, which equips faculty, students, staff and alumni at UCI and UCI Health to appreciate the university from the distinctive perspectives of diverse groups and to explore how the campus can improve.

“Connecting mindfulness to anti-racism was something that really blew my mind,” said Morales. “I thought that if we could bring that conversation into my course and program, it would be a very significant contribution to what we’re trying to do and achieve.”

Morales worked with the team to do just that. Mindfulness concepts were incorporated into the wellness elective, introducing an entirely new audience to a new concept for health and wellbeing.

Monisha Vance
“I think one of the most unique aspects of this course was our heavy focus on listening,… Listening is such a powerful tool… ” – Monisha Vance, MD, Mindfulness course developer

“I think one of the most unique aspects of this course was our heavy focus on listening,” said Vasa. “Listening is such a powerful tool – whether we are learning how to listen to ourselves, or those around us. We often think that people are either good listeners or they aren’t. Yet listening is a practice, something that we can all become better at with intention and effort. It was really rewarding to be able to devote time to learning how to listen with
generosity and curiosity.”

Following the success of this program, Drew De Paz is developing a complementary course, Mindfulness and Racial Humility, which grounds participants in self-compassion and empathy as they engage in dialogue around race relations.

The intent, she said, is to foster an environment that supports people in recognizing that there is much to learn from each other, and that this is essential if we are to cultivate respect for each other’s humanity.

Downing reflects on what was achieved.

“I think we brought together a really strong group of people on campus who care about really bringing to light our interconnectedness and seeing things a little different than some of the mainstream messaging that’s happening in our society.”


Tim Downing and “Empathy and Interconnectedness” is also featured in UCI Samueli School of Engineering’s 2022 Dean’s Magazine.

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