As part of her research for the Army, Jha says, she wanted to study a civilian environment where employees have a predictable cycle of intense mental stress. She chose accounting, and approached the Coconut Grove accounting firm Kaufman Rossin.
Nearly 200 employees volunteered for the two-week training.
“The typical mindfulness training is 31 hours in eight weeks. That’s a lot of time to ask folks to give us,” Jha says. “We’re systematically trying to reduce that time to see if we can get similar benefits.”
Despite years of hard work, no one seems more surprised by the steep trajectory of her success than Jha, who originally thought she’d become a medical doctor, before a stint in a local hospital uncovered a fascination with the brain.
“It is really weird,” she says. “So many times I’m like, ‘How the heck did I get here?’ ”
Jha found her calling as a result of her own suffering.
“I was grinding my teeth. I had two small kids. I had a full lab of grants I was managing, a full teaching load,” says Jha, who was then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was at the end of writing a grant, and had to talk to some of my colleagues on a faculty retreat. I woke up that morning, and I couldn’t feel my teeth. I just looked at my husband, and said, ‘I’ve got to quit my job.’ ”
That summer, Jha attended a lecture by another pioneer in the field, Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., who showed images of two brains, one affected by positive emotions and the other by depressed thoughts.
At the end of his lecture, she raised her hand and asked, “How do I get that brain to look like that brain?”
“He just said meditation. And that was all he said. I thought, ‘What is that?’ You can’t use that word [in the scientific community]. But it stuck in my head.”
Growing up in a Hindu family, Jha says, meditation “was part of the culture, but it wasn’t something I personally engaged in.” When she was a year old, her family moved to Wheaton, just outside Chicago, where she grew up.
After hearing Davidson, she bought Meditation for Beginners, and began practicing 10-minute exercises.
“By the end of the summer I felt better,” Jha says. “I still had my kids, my family, my job, but I was much happier. People in my lab noticed I was more engaged, my husband and I would have real conversations without my running away, the children liked to talk to me,” she says laughing. “… I was just able to show up and pay attention.”
“That was an aha moment. I knew it was a topic that was so compelling that I had to study it,” Jha says.
She shifted her research from basic neuroscience to studying how the brain pays attention to contemplative neuroscience, focusing on “how to get the mind to pay better attention using mindfulness.”
Today, she is busier than ever.
“I am so not the poster child for calm and balance,” she says. “I am a continual work in progress.”
How does she handle the success?
“Turn around,” she says. “No seriously turn around. Look on the floor right there,” she gestures toward bright red cushions in the corner of her office.
“Even when I don’t practice on that cushion every day I am glad I see it. It anchors me.”