Montana State University

MSU counseling professor wins Fulbright to India

May 11, 2012 -- Anne Cantrell, MSU News Service


MSU counseling professor John Christopher, who has devoted his career to studying differences between Western and Eastern cultures and psychology, has won a Fulbright-Nehru award to India. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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A Montana State University professor who has devoted his career to studying differences between Western and Eastern cultures and psychology has won a Fulbright-Nehru award to India.

John Christopher, a counseling professor in MSU's Department of Health and Human Development, will spend most of the next academic year in India, studying indigenous Indian psychology and how mindfulness practices and yoga are being integrated into health care in the country. In addition, he will teach classes on cultural and theoretical psychology. Christopher defines mindfulness as the capacity to be aware of the present moment with acceptance.

Because Christopher has extensively studied how Western culture and traditions affect modern psychology, he is especially looking forward to going to India, a country known for having a strong tradition of psychology rooted in Eastern values.

"Our culture in the West is very individualistically oriented," Christopher said. "We think of emotional satisfaction as being a guide to the good life...but that's a very unusual way of living life when placed in a historical and cross-cultural context."

In fact, well-being doesn't hinge on individual satisfaction in many cultures, Christopher said. Instead, it may involve bringing honor to one's tribe, family or nation, or fulfilling one's roles and obligations. Often, there is a sense that a natural order exists outside the individual and that proper alignment with this order is of primary importance in life.

Christopher and other cultural psychologists, who recognize that the theory, research and practice of psychology is largely shaped by Western cultural assumptions and values, suggest that psychology could instead be viewed using a different lens.

"What would it look like if we also drew on non-Western views and values?" Christopher asked.

To help find an answer, Christopher will depart in mid-May on a 15-month trip that will take him to India, then also to Bali, Myanmar, Bhutan and back to India. Along the way, he hopes to "gain a deeper appreciation of how psychology and counseling is influenced by our own traditions and assumptions."

Christopher's travels in Asia will be part of a year-long sabbatical from MSU. He will begin his time abroad by attending a six-week summer institute on Indian indigenous psychology in Puducherry, India. Christopher then will head to Bali for two months, where he will work with Balinese shamans and immerse himself in yoga teacher training, both pursuits in which he has previous experience. From Bali, Christopher plans to go to a monastery in Myanmar and practice silent meditation for several weeks. Then, he will travel to Bhutan, where he says the government has asked him and about a dozen other professionals to help bring professional counseling to the country.

Christopher's Fulbright-Nehru award will begin in November at the University of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, India. (After a significant expansion of the Fulbright program in India, Fulbright awards in that country are now known as Fulbright-Nehru awards.) While there, Christopher will teach at least one course and co-teach another course. He said he is especially looking forward to speaking with Indian faculty and students about their traditions as well as their conceptual and theoretical work. He would also like to gain a critical perspective on the way mindfulness is incorporated into health care.

"Yoga and mindfulness are fundamentally a part of the cultural tradition in India. And, while these practices are culturally ingrained, they have not yet been integrated into health care in this country of 1.2 billion people," Christopher said. "The promise of mindfulness practices as a form of preventative and participatory medicine offers the potential to improve health at a low cost in India as well as the U.S."

Christopher's interest in psychology began during what he called an existential crisis in junior high. After being in "despair" about the meaning of life for a number of years, what started to help, he said, was being exposed to courses in Greek and Chinese civilization.

"I realized the way people lived in the West was just one possibility of many," Christopher said. "I began to try to understand the variety of ways of being human."

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Christopher began taking yoga classes and practicing meditation. He said he received benefits from those practices on a number of levels, including relief from depression and chronic back pain. Yoga and meditation also helped "quiet" his mind, he said.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in the psychological and philosophical foundations of culture - a major he designed - Christopher went on to earn a master's degree in counseling and consulting psychology from Harvard University and a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

Christopher spent three years after earning his doctorate as a faculty member at the University of Guam, a time during which he also lived through eight typhoons and traveled extensively in southeast Asia and Micronesia. He came to Montana State in 1995.

At MSU, Christopher leads the university's graduate program in mental health counseling, in addition to other responsibilities. One popular course he teaches focuses on yoga, qi gong and meditation, and how those practices can enable counselors to not only help others but also manage their own stress.

Because the Fulbright-Nehru will enable Christopher to learn more about those practices, the award will ultimately benefit his students, he said.

"Mindfulness is a revolution within counseling," Christopher said. "The Fulbright will deepen my appreciation of those practices, and I will be able to share this with my students."

For example, one of Christopher's former graduate students detailed how learning about mindfulness altered the course of her studies and, eventually, her counseling practice.

"By the time I entered mindfulness training with John Christopher, I was approaching each counseling session braced for failure," MSU alumnus Judy A. Maris wrote in a 2009 article published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. "I was afraid of the client, afraid of not knowing what to do, afraid of my incompetence and inadequacy, and afraid of feeling those feelings."

But, practicing mindfulness enabled her to focus more of her energy and attention on her clients. Consequently, she wrote that she "became much better able to tolerate my client's fear or anger or sadness or shame without feeling pressured to relieve him of those feelings."

Christopher's colleagues also identify him as a leader in the fields of counseling and philosophical and cultural psychology, and he has received recognition at the national and local levels. Among other distinctions, he is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and past president of the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology. He also has received the Sigmund Koch Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, MSU's Wiley Faculty Award for Meritorious Research and a Bozeman Peacemaker Award.

"He has pioneered both new ideas and innovative practices concerned with applying non-Western philosophical and religious perspectives to questions of behavioral health and psychological well-being," said Frank Richardson, a professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.

Jeff Sugarman, another colleague and a professor of education and psychology at Simon Fraser University, said Christopher is "uniquely worthy" of the Fulbright award.

"Professor Christopher is a rare scholar-practitioner equipped with a wealth of Western philosophical knowledge and rich experience in Eastern meditative and contemplative traditions, who straddles the theoretical and applied fields of psychology," Sugarman said. "John Christopher is among the first names that come to mind in connection with integrating mindfulness into psychotherapeutic practice, but he also is recognized internationally for his insightful and innovative contributions on several other fronts...

"His scholarship is a sophisticated blend of informed analysis, judicious critique and perceptive speculation that is forging new frontiers in our notions of well-being and psychology's role in its pursuit," Sugarman added.

Contact: John Christopher, (406) 994-6943 or jcc@montana.edu