Meditation Can Help You To Have Compassion And Empathy For Self And Others

Anne-Marie Emanuelli, Creative Director at Mindful Frontiers

People are often attracted to meditation because of a need for emotional, spiritual or physical healing.

Once a person starts meditating, they generally realize the benefits extend far beyond a healing practice. It becomes a state of being and a lifestyle choice.

I was attracted to meditation a couple decades ago at a time when a physical ailment affected my ability to live life with ease. Not ready to accept surgery, a doctor suggested reading Dr. Christiane Northrup’s groundbreaking book Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. Through her book, I was introduced to Caroline Myss, a medical intuitive, who wrote about alternative ways to heal.

Meditation was a practice recommended by these authors and it became my path to personal wellbeing. Eventually, surgery became necessary and I was able to make this choice with equanimity, inner strength and the ability to stay grounded in the only moment of existence: the present.

Fast-forward many years to the chapter in which I was a classroom teacher. Our school had experienced three student suicides in the span of about a year; two were just before the start of school.

Needless to say, it was a very shaky start that year. Meditation came back to mind as a way to deal with grief and it seemed my students might need this calming practice as well.

For a number of years after this experience, mindful meditation became a cornerstone of my teaching practice. Students of many ages and backgrounds have shared mindful meditation together and have expressed the benefits they felt from a moment of calm body and peaceful mind.

Whether it is to get through a difficult illness, grief of losing a loved one, or simply to carve out a daily moment of non-doing, everyone can benefit from meditation.

The benefits are plentiful and scientifically proven. A few of these include the ability to stay calm during emotional experiences, to be less reactive to behaviors, to listen more carefully to conversations, and to have compassion and empathy for self and others.

There’s also the spiritual benefit of sangha that comes from practicing meditation with others, whether in a monastery or a virtual community of meditators. There’s no better time than right now to explore mindful meditation.

During Covid-related social distancing and isolation, teachers from different meditation lineages are sharing guidance freely and generously.

Even the Dalai Lama offers Buddhist teachings and spiritual ceremonies online. These practices guide us in navigating difficult experiences with calm introspection and balanced outward equanimity.

Meditation quiets the mind and settles the nervous system

Children benefit from mindful meditation

By Anne-Marie Emanuelli

Published in The Taos News, Aug 6, 2020

Mindful Frontiers welcomes a peaceful future by teaching families how to meditate, encouraging them to bring this practice into their daily routine.

I have been exploring meditation for two decades and incorporated mindfulness practice into my classrooms at Taos Academy about five years ago. This decision came after three student suicides took the school by surprise and propelled me into a personal exploration for healing grief and anxiety.

Rediscovering meditation was my path to wholeness and I found that students also benefited from present-moment awareness.

Everyone encounters stress and we are living through a challenging time right now. Some stress is necessary, but when it causes anxiety or fear, it may not be healthy. Mindfulness meditation calms the mind and settles the body.

Jon Kabat Zinn, the “father” of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness meditation is what Kabat Zinn introduced to medical centers over 40 years ago.

The human mind is very active and when we are still, thoughts inevitably stream into our awareness. We follow our thoughts into imagining, inventing and creating beautiful objects, ideas and stories. That incredible thinking can also be stressful because some of these thoughts are filled with worry, anxiety and ruminating; stories of what has already happened or has yet to occur.

Paying attention to the present moment in a particular way is a helpful tool to relax; it benefits the brain, body, relationships and is something anyone can do – anytime, anywhere.

There are many types of meditation. Being aware of the present moment by focusing on an attention anchor – sounds, sensations or, most commonly, the breath – is the fundamental principle of meditation.

People around the world have been meditating for generations and it is called a practice because it takes time and repetition to master. Being aware of the present moment and doing it over and over trains the mind and body to relax into stillness.

Meditation quiets the mind and settles the nervous system. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is a bodily system that determines how we respond to emotional experiences. It is made up of the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems.

Although, as the name suggests, the ANS is automatic, we can stimulate the PNS response through meditation. By quieting the mind’s reactivity and calming down our attachment to emotional thoughts, we settle the “fight or flight” reactions of the SNS, thereby stimulating the PNS, which helps our body and mind come back to homeostasis.

There are many meditation practices that can help settle the nervous system, including sense awareness, body scanning and breath practice. The breath has four parts: in-breath, pause-in, out-breath, pause-out. Each part is a space of present-moment stillness, especially the pauses.

“Even just carrying the attention around one cycle of breath without losing focus may begin to give rise to that sense of stillness and help students to appreciate the pleasure inherent in meditation,” says Taos Zen teacher Sean Murphy (“How to Be a Breath Nerd”).

Here’s a breathing practice to try. Find a quiet place to sit such as under a tree, next to a stream or in your favorite space at home. Settle into a comfortable posture such as seated with your back straight and relaxed. You may close your eyes or gaze gently forward with slightly closed eyelids.

Begin by feeling the weight of your body and the sensation of contact with the ground. Notice your hands, legs, shoulders, neck and head. Take your time with this settling. Grounding awareness helps the mind and nervous system feel safe.

After taking a few deep breaths begin to focus on the natural flow of the breath, and mindfully, try to identify the four parts of your breath. If your mind gets distracted, it’s normal. When this happens, just bring your attention back to the breath and continue noticing the four parts, especially the pauses.

Try this for five minutes at first and each day add a minute until you reach 10 minutes. This will be your daily mindful meditation practice: 10 minutes of noticing your breath. When you feel comfortable with this practice, you can try others.

Welcome to your mindful frontier!

A Thought Is The Simplest Level Of Conceptualization

Meditation and mindfulness

Thoughts are a product of the way the mind interacts with our environment to create a story.

Stressful thoughts originate in the amygdala, part of the limbic system. Thoughts are also called “stories” in the Buddhist teaching of the Five Skandhas (Five Conditions) that explains how our brain relates to the chain reaction of a stimulus.

The chains contain sense perception; reaction; interpretation and story. The story is when the mind creates meaning around a stimulus and an experience. A thought is the simplest level of conceptualization.

We can most definitely control our thoughts by using mindful meditation skills based on present moment awareness.

Firstly, I do not use the word “control” in my teaching and practice. I prefer using the concept of “allowing”, “acknowledging,” “investigating.”

Certainly, a thought gone wild (the “story”) may end up causing hurt, pain, misunderstanding, even violence. However, a thought by itself doesn’t need to be controlled; rather, we can be gentle and allow thought to come and go with equanimity.

Basically, when a person meditates using open awareness, which is a type of meditation practice wherein all thoughts and awarenesses are welcome and acknowledged, they are allowing whatever comes to mind at that moment.

During an open awareness practice, thoughts come and go and we choose whether to allow them to pervade our consciousness or we can do a variety of things to acknowledge them and let them go.

For example, “noting” or “labelling” is a powerful way to acknowledge our thoughts and let them go.

When a thought comes to mind, we recognize it, accept it, investigate where we feel it in the body and maybe even what is about.

Then, we label it as “past”, “future”, “pleasant”, “unpleasant”, and we send it on its way into a file in our mind with that label.

With practice, this kind of mindful meditation will allow us to be focused on the present moment, and not controlled by thoughts. We won’t ruminate about them, or let them take over our consciousness.

The Present Moment Is The Only Time Period In Which We Actually Live

Anne-Marie Emanuelli, Creative Director and Founder of Mindful Frontiers

Amongst meditation experts, the understanding of ‘why we think about the past so much’ is that the past is an experience of our life to which we attach meaning because we lived the details of the event personally.

Our ego also clings strongly to the past because it is where a sense of our identity lies. 

The reason past thoughts are problematic is that we mix them up with actual reality, thereby creating a faulty story of suffering. 

The present moment is the only time period in which we actually live – the direct or actual reality that unfolds in the here and now. 

In the Buddhist teaching of the Five Skandhas (Five Conditions) we interact with our environment to “create what we ordinarily perceive as conventional human reality as opposed to actual reality.” (from ‘The Five Conditions’, an article by Sensei Sean Murphy).

Through meditation and mindfulness, the Five Conditions help us understand our perceptions, past conditioning, and personal history that causes suffering.

It is presented as a chain that begins with Sensation/Perception (first encounter with a thought), followed by Feeling (like or dislike), proceeds with Reaction (emotions related to the thought) and then with Interpretation (where the thought enters consciousness) and if left unchecked will end up in the Story (the place where meaning is created around the thought; usually faulty and irrational) that causes suffering. 

When a person meditates using open awareness, a type of meditation practice during which all thoughts and awareness are allowed and acknowledged, they are accepting whatever comes to mind at that moment. 

During an open awareness practice, thoughts come and go with equanimity (non-judgement or attachment). 

With practice, this kind of mindful meditation allows us to be focused on the present moment, and not get distracted by past thoughts. 

We don’t ruminate about them, or let them take over our consciousness with stories of pain and suffering. 

That would be called “gasping”, “clinging”, and “aversion” which is explained in the second of the four Noble Truths of Buddhism. 

By accepting thoughts with equanimity and allowing them to dissipate, we understand that there is a way out of suffering (The Third Noble Truth). 

Through meditation, mindfulness, non-attachment, and self-compassion (The Fourth Noble Truth), we can reach enlightenment, which is basically just a calm state of present-moment awareness that all is well, here and now. 

The more a person practices mindful meditation skills, the better and more proficient the person will become in not allowing their mind to ruminate about the past. 

As explained in ‘Altered Traits’ by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, when a group of highly experienced meditators were studied, “Other signs of the yogis’ expertise include stopping and starting meditative states in seconds, and effortlessness in meditation (particularly among the most seasoned).” 

This suggests that a proficient meditator may be able to come in and out of present-moment awareness and relaxation, thereby not getting caught up in ruminating the past.

This post is part of a longer article published October 9, 2020 in Human Window on “How to Stop Thinking About the Past”. View entire article at Human Window

Mindful Frontiers & the garden of abundance.

person holding a green plant

Mission: 

By teaching young children the benefits of present-moment awareness, we build a mindful future for families and community. 

Today is the start of Chapter 5: Mindful Frontiers. I’ve been dreaming of this day for a while now. The seed (idea) was formed several years ago while teaching mindfulness awareness in my classrooms. As the seed sprouted, and the dream grew, I practiced and perfected the skill of teaching/sharing mindfulness with others, both in and out of the classroom. The seed (idea) became a plant (reality) and the flower (potential) blossomed into a dream, ready to proliferate more seeds into gardens of abundance. With retiring from full-time public school teaching, the dream has come to fruition (flower is now a fruit, ready to spread seeds far and wide).

The goal is to offer mindful meditation teaching to local families with young children (5-10 years old). The proliferation of further seeds will grow abundantly the skill of present-moment awareness as stress reduction skills that can be nurtured within families. How this will enfold and come to fruition is in Universe’s hands.

Gardens of abundance:

  • Weekly meditation sits with families in a local venue such as TaoSatva.
  • Receive a grant to spread this practice to families who are not able to pay for the classes.
  • Sage Institute of Taos would be the “umbrella” non-profit to house the grant funds.
  • As Mindful Frontiers family meditation classes grow, the next step would be to expand into elementary school classrooms: phase 1 would be 3 classrooms; phase 2: expand to a couple schools x 3 classrooms each; phase 3: hire additional teachers to expand into more schools and classrooms.

 

Motherhood Memories & Meditation

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Mother’s Day meditation reflections for May 10, 2020.

Marielle is 15 1/2 and I’ve been a mother for 16.  My heart is full of gratitude for this Mother’s Day.

My personal path to motherhood started around 2001 when I learned that I had a lot of uterine fibroids that were making conception difficult. I bled so much each month that I became critically anemic. By 2002, I was so sick and weak that one day I ended up in the emergency room because of excruciatingly painful cramps. I was told my blood test showed I was critically anemic and was offered a blood transfusion that I didn’t accept. The GYN doctor gave me a form to fill out accepting a hysterectomy. After refusing, she suggested I read “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom” by Dr. Christiane Northrup. The book saved my life!

Meanwhile, I joined a Yahoo community on “uterine fibroids” and met many women living around the world dealing with this female issue. We communicated with each other and shared experiences and advice. Along with the WBWW book, this online community was a great support. The WBWW book also pointed me in the direction of Caroline Myss’ book “Spirit Anatomy”. This resource helped me learn about spiritual healing, personal body communication, and eventually helped me decide when I was ready for medical intervention.

After lots of prayers, ceremony, reflection, meditation & research on the different kinds of fibroid surgery, I chose a couple I wanted to explore that would retain my womb. Then, I sent out 40 letters to doctors in my insurance network and waited for responses. Two doctors responded and I chose Dr. Lynore Martinez of Santa Fe OB/GYN. She looked me straight in the eye and told me she would remove the fibroids without jeopardizing fertility. During surgery, she removed 16 fibroids of varying sizes and reconstructed my womb.

One and a half years later I conceived and became a mother. What a thrilling joy and blessing that was. For the entire pregnancy, I swam and exercises and had the most healthy 9 months. When I arrived at the hospital for the planned c-section, I was tanned and toned and at peek health. Marielle was born full-term but before labor could start because Dr. Martinez said there weren’t enough women who had gone through natural childbirth after uterine reconstructive surgery for it to be considered safe.

Today, 16 years after my first Mother’s Day, I am grateful for the beautiful and sensitive daughter my husband and I are blessed with. Even as we navigate her teenage topsy turvy chapter, we are grateful she was brought to our life. As we live through the 2020 Covid19 pandemic and spend 24 hours together, I am mindful of daily family blessings. This year’s Mother’s Day will be special because it is so different from any other. We’re confined to our home. There won’t be a celebratory dinner in a restaurant. There won’t be a family hike with a picnic. We’ll just be home with the food in the pantry and will make it special just as it is. Plus, it’s my husband’s birthday this year as he was born on May 10. Every so often these two special days fall on the same day. It really feels intensely special this year.

Happy day to mothers, grandmothers, and caregivers who serve as mothers.

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Looking ahead…

women s white top and orange floral skirt
Photo by Samuel Silitonga on Pexels.com

12.15.19

Ten days to Christmas. Five days to the end of the semester. The last lap before retiring from full-time secondary school teaching.

What will the next chapter–Chapter Five–look like? What do I want it to look like? Allowing Source to guide me, here’s an affirming story to manifest the next chapter.

I am teaching mindfulness and meditation in a variety of ways. I have a weekly family meditation group. The “students” donate (dana) in a abasket and I earn a comfortable return for my service. By teaching mindful meditation to families I am sharing the importance of present-moment awareness and  self-compassion to youth and their parents. Through this weekly practice, I am helping to create mindful youth, mindful future. 

With a mindfulness-based grant for early childhood community school initiatives, I share mindful meditation with many youth in kindergarten through second grade at local elementary schools. I teach mindful meditation in five classrooms weekly. The teachers come to my family-based weekly mindful meditation group for support with their own formal meditation practice. 

Other than mindfulness practice instruction, I teach a couple university classes at our local community college in French and English or Computer Applications. Mindfulness is incorporated in those classrooms as well because it belongs everywhere and for all ages.

My post-retirement schedule also includes coordinating DTC functions for a couple local schools during Spring semester. It’s a way to bring balance to my professional endeavors by using both brain hemispheres (mindfulness meditation teaching for the right hemisphere and testing coordinator consultation for the left). It is something I started my last semester of teaching and it ended up being a contract that I was able to continue after retiring. 

Each year, through challenges and successes, through sadness and joy, I have grown into the teacher, woman and person I am now on the precipice of retirement and new frontiers. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

May This Be So (Ainsi Soit-il). Gratitude is powerful. 

 

What about this idea?

 

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In the middle of getting a rejuvenating massage today, an idea was brought to my attention. How about an office/home-based mindfulness/meditation center to reach like-minded families?

  • home-schooled children or a playgroup of families could offer gatherings on mindfulness.
  • youth and family group workshops through an existing organization or wellness center.
  • one-on-one mindfulness lessons to families in their home or in an office
  • homework tutoring that included a mindfulness check-in/focus practice
  • webinar/online mindfulness course for families with young students
  • membership card/punch card for weekly mindfulness sessions at a location in-town such as a massage or health center.
  • school clubs or departments to offer a mindfulness-based stress reduction class/session for their members.
  • civic organizations contract with me to offer an MBSR session to their members

This could be either instead of or in addition to offering mindfulness classes and training to local schools.

Spring semester 2019 notes:

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  1. Classroom lesson about changing patterns & response.

We started with a mindfulness discussion about the freedom to pause before responding using Victor Frankl’s quote Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Then students visualized a situation in which there was a stimulus that led to an automatic reaction. Students rewound the scene to the moment right before the reaction and visualized their body sensations, facial expression, emotions and practiced seeing the situation as an observer. Students did an anchor breathing practice while they visualized how they might respond if there had paused beforehand.

The poem “Autobiography in Five Chapter by Portia Nelson” was read to students and they were asked to discuss with a partner the metaphor of the “hole in the sidewalk”.

Then, we did a ball-throwing activity to show how changing patterns can change the energy of a situation. The activity is called “group juggle“. The objective is to throw the ball to each student and then to remember the pattern afterward. We first used one ball and then tried to add a couple more. The second and third balls are juggled in the same way so that there are several patterns going on at the same time. Students in one middle school class couldn’t add the second pattern so we just did several patterns with one ball. The older class was able to do two simultaneous patterns successfully. When a third ball (pattern) was added it became too hard and the patterns fell apart (couldn’t remember who threw to whom).

We discussed what this felt like, why it was so hard to add another pattern, to remember the patterns, to focus, and what the metaphor of changing patterns is about. Students then wrote a timed journal writing about what today’s activities.

2. In a high school class, the topic of the lesson was mind wandering and distractions. A TedTalk video, How to Tame Your Wandering Mind” by Amishi Jha, was shown which explains how mindfulness practice can help us learn to focus under pressure and limit mind wandering. Then, two article were read by students on the topics of multi-tasking or task switching. (Kent State University and Stanford News) In these article, results of different studies indicated that our mind can only really focus on one task at at time and that multi-tasking actually impairs our mind’s memory. Students discussed the articles together and then wrote a journal writing reflecting on the topics.

3. From Heart of Teaching Mindfulness workshop in May at Mountain Cloud Zen Center: group cluster activity where we wander or amble around silently in mindful walking. Someone stops and another person stops next to the first person. Pretty soon several people stop and organically, silently form either a circle, lines or clump. Then, someone decides to start walking again and others follow until the next person decides to stop and so forth. This is a really interesting activity because of the group communicating in silence. Apparently it can be used with youth and I’m excited to try in my classrooms.

4. Also from the May workshop, a triad conversation to practice active listening and observing. Instead of the traditional diad conversation, the triad style is where one person speaks for up to 5 minutes while the 2nd person listens silently and the 3rd person observes the speaker and listener. Next step is the active listener comments on what he/she heard the speaker explain (5 minutes) and the final step is the observer comments on what was observed of the other 2 people (3 minutes). The addition of the “observer” is an interesting twist because there is the opportunity for the speaker and listener to get feedback on what the observer noticed or experienced.

5. During this semester, I found myself more strict about closing eyes. I really wanted students to try it and I felt that if I focused on it, encouraging them to try it for part of the practice, that they would realize it is safe. Next year I will mention it but I won’t force it. This semester was also challenging in that I got 3 new students mid-year and they did not have the prior practice in mindfulness that the rest of the class had and they disrupted the flow of things. I also found myself getting upset and aggitated by these new students. Next year I will model using mindfulness at random times when I sense my heightened mood so that students will see in “in action.”

Expanding beyond my classroom?

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An invitation to share a mindful practice in another teacher’s classroom this week.

In Student Success Lab (off day computer lab for online curriculum work), a small group of students are learning about how to navigate Math anxiety. The teacher calls this group Eustress Math.

I have been invited to share how deep breathing can help calm feelings of anxiety. The 30-minute activity starts with this video and then an explanation of the physiology of the brain and how deep breathing affects the 10,000-year-old human brain.

Then the chime is rung and I lead the group in slow breathing: 4 counts in, 2 counts hold, 6 counts out. After a few guided breaths the students count for themselves. Finally, we imagine that we are holding a cup of hot cocoa: breathe in the flavor; hold while admiring the cocoa; breathe out the mouth to “cool off” the cocoa. After a few hot-cocoa breaths the chime is rung to mark the end of the practice.

I could definitely sense the students had relaxed. Out of the 4 students, one had not been in a class with me before so this was her first exposure to mindfulness. She expressed that closing her eyes was uncomfortable for her so I explained how this is common for new students of mindfulness as it is related to the prehistoric origins of our brains. A discussion about fear of being attacked by a tiger ensued and I explained that it takes time and practice to retrain the brain.

A successful and enjoyable way to expand mindfulness into other teachers’ classrooms feeds gratitude to be on this adventure.