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Killing Zwaldon - The Benefits of Mindfulness

The cancellation of a Sunday night variety show at summer camp foretold the impending death of Zwaldon, Mastermind of the Universe, a mythical figure able to answer questions before they are asked. Those old enough to remember Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show will recognize Zwaldon as the successor to his character, Carnac the Magnificent, a "mystic from the East" who could psychically "divine" unseen answers to unknown questions.

While such cognitive prowess might seem far-fetched, the growing popularity of “mindfulness”—or being more in touch with oneself and others—reflects similar themes of awareness and insight. Mindfulness is a meditative practice that originates in Buddhism, but has gained worldwide popularity as a distinctive method to handle emotions. It also speaks to awareness, retention and memory.

Of late, mindfulness is also used to “treat” a variety of psychological states, including anxiety and depression, and as an antidote for alcohol and other drug addictions. It has even been linked to pain management and reduction, reflecting the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In addition, at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, Dr. William Zempsky treats pediatric patients with a combination of traditional medicine and contemporary modalities including breathing techniques and guided imagery—something I use in training summer camp counselors at the Cape Cod Sea Camps in Massachusetts.

Mindfulness has also emerged in what were once viewed as unlikely places, with reports of Silicon Valley heavyweights, Fortune 500 executives and Pentagon chiefs endorsing its worth, according to Kate Picket in her Time magazine article “The Art of Being Mindful” (Feb. 3, 2014). She states, “The techniques associated with the philosophy are intended to help practitioners quiet a busy mind, becoming more aware of the present moment and less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come.”

Tony Schwartz, in his New York Times article “More Mindfulness, Less Meditation,” speaks to the advantages of simple mindfulness—or “mindfulness in action.” Incorporating its teachings into everyday life maximizes the positive effects of becoming more conscious of one’s feelings, more intentional about one’s behavior and more attentive to one’s impact on those around them.

Both of those articles link mindfulness to the concept of presence—in work and relationships—an outcome that could separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to value in the workforce.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in his opinion piece “What Machines Can’t Do,” (February 3, 2014) points out that, over time, certain mental skills become less important because computers fill the void. Thus, the value proposition for future workers rests on such non-cognitive skills as curiosity, collaboration and creativity, not exactly the hallmarks of even sophisticated technology. He also talks about the importance of strategic discipline, saying, “In a world of online distractions, the person who can maintain a long obedience toward a single goal, and who can filter out what is irrelevant to that goal, will obviously have enormous worth.” 

Non-cognitive skills and goal orientation are also characteristics of successful entrepreneurs … even those who ply their trade for the benefit of others.

Indeed, research on character, leadership and social entrepreneurship among young people conducted by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University in partnership with SurveyTelligence, Inc. found that common traits of those creating positive change include sociability, adaptability, motivation and optimism. They also exhibit an ability to gather the resources needed to get things done.

Further evidence of the movement away from cognitive skills increasingly absorbed by technology and toward what Brooks refers to as “heart” can be found in the commentary of Lee Burdette Williams, vice president of student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. In his March 2014 essay, “For graduates, the major matters, but so do interpersonal skills,” which appeared in Inside Higher Ed. Williams offers, “I have come to realize that the arguments in favor of, or against, the wonders of a liberal arts education tell only half the story. There is an equation at work in determining the likelihood of success, and it is an equation too often overlooked in our defense of the liberal arts: the one that calculates the value of character and personal skills.” He goes on to cite the importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness as essential ingredients of a good life.

While the mythical Zwaldon may face imminent death, his quest for knowledge prior to query lives on in those preparing to be truly successful in the 21st century.

Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior advisor to SADD, director of counseling and counselor training at Cape Cod Sea Camps, and a parenting expert and blogger at For more information about Stephen’s work, please visit 

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Stephen Gray Wallace's picture

Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), a national collaborative of institutions and organizations committed to increasing favorable youth outcomes and reducing risk. He is a consultant to summer camps on staff training and teen leadership programming and has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. Stephen is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at