The California Cure Meditating on the Possibilities: Dr. Sue Smalley

Sue Smalley thought she was “doing everything right.” A UCLA professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, she had a successful career; a long, happy marriage; and wonderful children. She ate right. She exercised faithfully. Then she was diagnosed with cancer.

Lucky for her the melanoma was arrested in its very early stages, but that brush with mortality “was the tipping point that allowed me to take stock of my life,” she recalls.

Medical leave from work gave Smalley time to explore things she’d never done, like yoga, massage, meditation and the practice of really seeing the world as it was moment by moment—the “be here now” attitude otherwise called “mindfulness.” Doing this, Smalley experienced “unprecedented creativity and a profound sense of connectedness. I really felt changed.”

Realizing the something that had been missing in her life was missing in the academic environment in general led her to create the Mindful Awareness Research Center at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. The one-room space with a Zen-like atmosphere is meant to foster “intuitive development.”

“We want to get people to try this experiential way of gaining knowledge to balance the reason-based knowledge we accumulate at a university,” Smalley explains. “At a university, we train you in critical thinking and the scientific method, which is fantastic, but we never focus on the intuitive and creative side, which is just as much a part of science as it is in art.”

Each month, about 500 faculty and academic staff take advantage of the free classes in yoga, tai chi and meditation. Evening programs are open to the public for a fee, and online guided meditations are available through its Website: “Having a mindfulness space in a research institute says, ‘we value this,’ ” Smalley notes. “One of my favorite quotes is by Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine: ‘Intuition tells the thinking mind where to look.’ ”
—Samantha Dunn