Short vs Long Meditation Practice

Everyone encounters stress and we are living through a challenging time right now. Some stress is necessary and 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.” 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 and people from many cultures and traditions have been meditating for generations; it is called a practice because it takes time and repetition to master.  The three most widely accessible for the general public are Concentration, Insight practice and Mantra or Affirmation meditation also known as Loving Kindness. Mindfulness meditation is a concentration meditation practice that Jon Kabat Zinn introduced to medical centers over 40 years ago to help patients who were not demonstrating pain relief from conventional medicine and treatments. Being aware of the present moment by focusing on an attention anchor — sounds, sensations, or most commonly, the breath — is the fundamental principle of concentration-based meditation. 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. “These two systems are activated in times of arousal or recovery. Put simply, SNS activation leads to a “fight or flight” response, and PNS activation leads to a “rest and digest” response.”  (Roxanna Salim, November 12th, 2019, Imotions.com) 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. 

The multitude of benefits of regular meditation are explined in “Altered Traits” by NYT bestselling authors, Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson. Some of the benefits beyond neurological relaxation and pain relief are increased selectivity of attention, awareness of body sensations and reactions, and ability to avoid being triggered by emotions. In the words of Richard Davidson, “Among meditators with the greatest amount of lifetime practice hours…the amygdala hardly responded to the emotional sounds. But for those with less practice… the amygdala … showed a robust response.” (page 243). The Amygdala is part of the SNS which, as explained above, is connected to “fight and flight” responses; in other words, being triggered and protecting humans from danger is what the amygdala does. When the brain isn’t triggered as described by the response of the long-time meditators, emotional resilience moves to the frontal cortex areas of the brain. In this frontal area mindfulness awareness and desensitization allows the meditator to regulate emotional responses. 

Any amount of meditation will help regulate focus and emotional responses over time, however, the more time a person practices the more “plasticity” will come to the brain. This is similar to an athlete working out regularly. The muscles of an athlete get stronger and more resilient as they become more fit. The same is found with long-time meditators and those who increase their practice. One way to increase practice is to plan a retreat. There is nothing better than a silent meditation retreat in the peaceful mountain setting of a meditation center or monastery. However, during this time of pandemic restrictions, a home-based retreat can be a beautiful escape from the daily grind. This is more easily done by signing up for a virtual meditation retreat which is more and more common these days. Most well-established meditation centers offer virtual retreats. In my area, the Mountain Cloud Zen Center, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, offers a variety of retreats that can be done from home. These can be viewed on the MCZC website at https://www.mountaincloud.org/schedule/events-sesshins/.  

From personal experience as a meditation practitioner for over 20 years and an experienced mindfulness teacher for about 7 years, I would not recommend that an adult novice meditator sit for more than 10-20 minutes at a time at the start, nor try to meditate alone. However, after regularly meditating for 20 minutes, it will be easier to stretch a practice to 30, 40, 45 minutes, especially while listening to guidance from a teacher and in a restful setting. Meditating in a natural setting such as a park or forest are great places to sit and the fresh air rejuvenates the brain and body. 

I do not recommend doing long meditation practices alone unless the practitioner has acquired the experience and knows a wide range of meditation approaches. Another reason jumping into long meditations is not recommended for novice practitioners is that the increased introspection and emotional release could trigger uncomfortable past memories of trauma that have been suppressed for a long time. Working through these memories are best done with the guidance of a meditation teacher who is trained in trauma-responsive practices. When done with guidance and when the practitioner has built up their meditation practice, longer sits can be an expansive experience. 

As for when to “fit in” a meditation practice, it’s a matter of personal preference and schedule. Many meditators profess the benefits of meditating as soon as they wake up, whereas others prefer meditating at the end of the day. It really doesn’t matter as long as a regular routine is established. Consistency is more important than when and what type of meditation approach. The best way to build a strong practice is simply commit to sit. Consider it as important as mealtime, exercise time and sleep time. 

 Mindful Frontiers, (mindfulfrontiers.net) offers guided video practices as well as one-on-one online meditation instruction and coaching programs for any level meditator. Anne-Marie Emanuelli, creative director at Mindful Frontiers believes that meditation is the way to build a mindful future.

Enchanted confinement – 5 weeks

IMG_0944
#pandemic2020 #incasa enchanted confinement New Mexico style

 Some days are boring while others are exciting and full of activities. 

Week 5 of confinement. Routine is settling in. Each morning starts with setting a positive intention for the day. “May I be healthy; may I be safe; may I be at ease; may I have pleasant, productive day”. After a meditation at my labyrinth the work day begins.

Virtual teaching schedule starts at 8:00. I have “prep” first block so I’m not really accountable until 10:00. I’ve been getting up later than during the normal school year when I have to be at school by 7:50. During the confinement I check email around 8:30 and respond as necessary. DTC duties have fizzled with the cancellation of standardized student assessments. I have taken on the responsibility of daily staff check-in email which have been fun. The intention of the daily staff check-in is to continue schoolwide community relationships. From 1:00-4:00 I am have Writing Lab tutoring. Students sign up for a 30-minute appointment to get help. On Tuesdays at 2:00, I have a group check-in for students taking a foreign language using Rosetta Stone.

Around 4:00, my virtual teaching day is over and I can transition outside for physcial exercise. This is my ultimate motivation for each day: the sanity break that comes from balancing body, mind & spririt through movement in the natural environment.

At the end of the day, I fill my mind and soul with further meditation, teachings & reflections through podcasts, videos, reading, and journalling. Some of the teachers I’m following: Deepak Chopra, Caroline Myss, Oren Jay Sofer, Ten Percent Happier Live, Brené Brown, Elizabeth Gilbert, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Abraham Hicks.

Vulnerable, New Spring #pandemic2020

bluebird
Mountain bluebird illustrates mindful awareness.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

“Everyone” is writing, blogging, discussing, commenting, sharing about our vulnerable, brave new world during the #pandemic2020. Here is my personal experiece since the virus arrived in New Mexico.

On Thursday, March 12, 2020, the school director asked all staff to meet. We had learned during the week that the Covid-19 coronavirus had reached New Mexico and there were two confirmed cases in our state; by Thursday there were three. She explained to us that so far schools were still on schedule and we would be coming back on Monday, March 23 after Spring Break. There was uncertainty in the room as she explained the current situation from the school’s perspective. Teachers were whispering that school would surely be closed soon.

She explained that if anyone was leaving the state during the break, there was a strong probability they’d have to prove they were not carrying the virus upon return or spend 14-days in self-quarantine without pay (other than regular leave days accrued). Apparently, there had been a virtual meeting for all school administrators that afternoon with the Secretary of Education for NM at which contingencies were explained.

By the time I got home that day, school had been closed in all of the state’s schools for 3 weeks. The NM Secretary of Education with the Governor had “called it” by 6:00 pm on Thursday, March 12. “Schools in New Mexico are closed until April 6”.

Starting Friday, March 13, we knew that we were not going back to campus for at least three weeks. That’s where it stands at this point (3/22/20) although many believe schools will be cancelled for the rest of the semester and that we will be doing our best to offer online, virtual instruction to students until the end of the school year.

As the news sunk in, we realized we were in a new, vulnerable world. By the time I write this post, there are closer to 48 cases of the virus in NM. That’s over 2000% increase in one week. For a few days I was in shock and thought the sky was falling, the world was ending, we were done-for. Stock markets crashed several times over the span of several days. My investments have lost 15% of the original principal which apparently is better than the overall stock market that dropped 30%. I have to sit tight and wait until the economy improves. This could take months just like the crash in 1987. Patience and resilience is required.

After freaking out, I began searching for direction and perspective. There are quite a few podcasts and videos providing guidance on YouTube and Instagram at the moment. The majority of workers in the US are working from home now and are finding ways to be productive and of service. The teachers I’ve been following are meditation/mindfulness, new consciousness, and mind-body healing inspired. Most are nationally acclaimed and have an audience that now is seeking guidance.

Oren Jay Sofer events page

Brené Brown blog

Ten Percent Happier Live videos

Deepak Chopra Wellness and Deepak Chopra Instagram videos

Caroline Myss videos on the journey

Tara Brach “Create a Home Retreat”

Doterra Daily Covid-19 Updates on YouTube

Since I began watching these, my outlook has improved. I’m using my time productively. Creative projects, reading, writing, journalling, exercising and enjoying the example of nature’s resilience to inspire positivity. The birds and plants continue to follow their evolutionary process of getting ready for Spring. They don’t seem a bit affected by what we are dealing with and it helps to watch them day to day. I find strength in my daily long walks and jogs as well as walking my labyrinth and meditating. Something positive will come from this difficult chapter in our life.

Meanwhile, like the poem by Kitty O’Meara that I included in a previous post, after the danger passed, the people joined together and the planet began to heal.

May we be healthy;

May we be safe;

May we be happy;

May we find ease of mind.

Namaste – Amen

A Kinder World?

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 9.39.16 AM

(This photo came up on Tara Brach’s Insta page this morning. May the photographer and subject enjoy the love and appreciation that we experience by sharing this image.)

The Dalai Lama once said that “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”

This quote appeared in my social media thread this morning. It seems it had gone viral several years ago and just today came to my consciousness. Serendipity? What is the message I am to get from this? Did the Dalai Lama really say this? When? Where?

Anyway, it reminded me of a fundamental goal of Mindful Youth Mindful Future: teaching youth mindful meditation and compassionate awareness are ways to encourage a kinder future. I’ve had this idea for a while when contemplating future endeavors in mindfulness. I’m curious whether teaching mindfulness-based calming practices would be a way to avoid school shootings in the future. What if one would-be gunner had learned mindfulness meditation, and if that child used meditation instead of guns to deal with stress, how many young lives would be saved?

How old is “old enough” to teach children mindfulness, meditation, contemplation of self in the moment? Surely, the very young can sit and color a mandala, walk a labyrinth and follow a finger labyrinth. Eventually, each child could learn to focus on breath, bodily sensations, internal feelings.

Article on teaching youth meditation from HuffPost

One million youth meditating for world peace in Thailand from https://www.enlightened-consciousness.com

 

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. 

 

Staff mindfulness workshop

img_2351

At the end of Spring 2019 semester, we had a day-long staff mindfulness training with Rio Grande Mindfulness Institute. Three teachers led our staff of about 20 in a variety of practices: sitting, walking, eating, visualisation. We started the day with yoga stretches and chi gong style movement to get us warmed up and awake. Then, after some guidance from Kara, a meditation teacher from Durango, we sat for about 20 minutes. Throughout the day, we alternated between guided sitting, silent walking, guided movement and a noble silent lunch buffet. I was grateful and pleased with how our staff responded to the training. Everyone participated, shared and was able to sit for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. The walking meditation went well, too, with some people walking back and forth inside while others went outside. It was a cold May day outside and the chilly temperature was envigorating. The sun came out in the afternoon while I was doing a walking practice around the swimming pool. I tried backwards walking, too.

It is possible that next year, using the Healthy Schools grant, that staff will have the encouragement and funding to attend further mindfulness workshops with RGMI at Mountain Cloud Zen Center in Santa Fe.

Mindful Communications

img_2095

Notes from the online course through MindfulSchools.org in Aug-Sept 2018.

The process takes its inspiration from Non Violent Communication techniques introduced by Marshall Rosenberg. The teacher of this course, Oren Jay Sofer, has written the book “Say What You Mean” which goes into more details with the precepts of mindful communication.

First step: lead with presence. Observe self, others, situation.

Second step: come from curiosity and care. Share feelings.

Third step: focus on what matters. What are the needs.

First Foundation: Presence: Effective communication requires presence. Stay aware of your presence in the conversation; maintain focus; honesty with self about what’s happening. The more aware we are, the more choice we have. Accept the unknown of what is going to happen and new possibilities of the dialogue.

Second Foundation: Intention: Intention determines direction. Intentions shape experience; Be aware of habitual conflict styles in order to transform underlying beliefs. Avoid thoughts of blame and criticism. Everything we do, we do to meet a need. People are more likely to listen when they feel heard. Reflect before responding.

Third Foundation: Attention: Attention shapes experience. Differentiate between “strategies” and “needs” to have more choice and clarity. The more we understand one another, the easier it is to find mutually beneficial solutions. Establish mutual understanding before problem-solving. Awareness of emotions supports ability to choose how we participate in conversation. Take responsibility of our feelings, connecting them to our needs makes it easier to be heard. Hear others’ feelings as a reflection of their needs which helps us understand the other person without blame, the need to agree or feeling responsible for their emotions. Having empathy for ourselves makes it easier to listen to others. Stating clearly what happened without judgment or evaluation aids in being heard. Observations rather than judgement or evaluation. Check in with other for understanding; use fewer words and more sincerity; speak in short chunks makes understanding easier. Be clear about what is wanted and why to get more creative about solution. Awareness of our reactivity to help make wiser choices of what to say. When in conflict, listen more closely to the other person first; increases chance of their willingness to listen to us.

 

Spring semester 2019 notes:

img_2157

  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?

img_2118

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.

Mindful Communications

img_1220

I completed this course in September which was taught by Oren Jay Sofer. I really enjoyed following this course which combined tools from Non-Violent Communication and Mindfulness. I had previously read Marshall Rosenberg’s classic book on Non-Violent Communication before knowing that this communication course would be incorporating ideas and skills from NVC.

 

The foundations of Mindful Communications are:

  • Presence: ground awareness in the body
  • Intention: cultivate an orientation in heart
  • Attention: train to focus on specific areas

After the course, I was offered a copy of Oren’s first book entitled “Say What You Want” – a mindful approach to nonviolent communication. In this book, the author digs deeper into the concepts and skills introduced in the MC course. It’s a very good supplemental resource to the course and I’m glad to have acquired a copy.