Equanimity Practice to Cultivate Non-Reactivity and Freedom

This month I’d like to share with you the practice of Equanimity or Non-Reactivity.  In Buddhist psychology, there are the Four Divine Abodes. These are loving-kindness, compassion, joy and the most important, equanimity. During times of challenge, it is helpful to have a tool we can use to navigate the emotions we are experiencing from exposure to a conflict-filled and struggling world. This month’s practice focuses on non-reactivity so that we can view what is going on around us with care. Equanimity is an inner refuge that brings freedom and acceptance.

“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.” 

(Victor Frankl, author & Holocaust survivor)

In the words of Tara Brach, a Buddhist-trained meditation teacher who blends Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices, “If we want to bring our intelligence, creativity and love into our relationships and world, we need to be able to access an inner refuge of presence.” The family practice I’m sharing with you explores how to bring equanimity (inner balance and non-reactive awareness) into our responses to what is going on around us. The practice uses the mantra, And This …, which allows space for the changing experiences of life to be acknowledged and move through us as we ground in the present moment.

When life gets busy and overwhelming, a powerful antidote is to pause, take a breath, notice what’s going on and then choose our next step. The freedom that comes from the pause is powerful. In the pause is the spaciousness of presence; it allows us to be aware and non-reactive. And when we’re able to rest and notice what is going on in the moment, we can find peace in our hearts. When we think with the heart, the mind will follow. 

Equanimity / Non-Judgment of the Present Moment practice using AND THIS…:

– Start by finding a comfortable place to sit in meditation as a family and choose a leader who will read the step-by-step practice that follows. If there are young children, I recommend bringing out some blank paper and coloring materials so they can participate in the AND THIS… activity using creativity. 

– Begin with a couple of deep breaths in through the nose and out the mouth. This relaxes the mind and body and engages the parasympathetic nervous system.

– Settling into the natural breath we notice the in and out rhythm and we also notice how the body is feeling. Is there tension, emotions, restlessness? Name what is felt and where it is felt in the body. Young children are encouraged to name what they feel in any way they wish.

– Next, we conjure up a difficult situation in the world: conflict in Ukraine, famine in Africa; whatever the family wishes to focus on. As we visualize the difficult situation, we see the suffering, the injustice and the pain in our mind’s eye. Each time we come back to noticing our breath and introduce the mantra, AND THIS _________.  We notice the feelings and allow them to be here, labeling them with a word: AND THIS sadness, AND THIS pain, AND THIS fear, AND THIS … For young children, we can have them draw what they are feeling about the situation. 

– Again and again, we bring ourselves back to the moment as it is with nonjudgment. No need to label it as not good, not bad, not even neutral, just life unfolding with us in it, just the here and now reality; and this, and this, and this. Young children may need to express what they are feeling with words and this is where the drawing comes in. Encourage them to put whatever they are feeling into their drawings.

– When ready, bring everyone’s attention back to the breath going in and out, allowing it to slow down, feeling your body settling back into the sitting posture. Open your eyes and gaze around the room, reintegrating the mind and body. Everyone can notice something in the room that has a bright color and shape and as we pay attention to it, we wake up from the meditation. 

– If there’s time, a family discussion can be invited to share the experience, the drawings and how the meditation went for everyone.

– Equanimity meditation can be done anytime something affects us emotionally. Take a few calming breaths, notice how the body feels, repeat the AND THIS … mantra as many times as desired, inserting a feeling word. When ready, we can move on with the day enjoying the freedom that comes from taking a pause.

Anne-Marie Emanuelli is founder and Creative Director at Mindful Frontiers LLC, an education-based mindfulness meditation center offering workshops, classes and coaching for children, families, classrooms and individuals. For more information please go visit the website MindfulFrontiers.net.

Published March 10, 2022 in The Taos News

Self-Compassion (Karuna) Meditation for Parents

February is the month of red hearts, roses and chocolate. Valentine’s Day encourages us to express our love to others with cards and gifts. This custom is said to have started in the 1500swith commercial cards appearing in the 1700s. 

Usually, in this column, I share meditation practices for the entire family to do together. This month I’d like to invite adults in the family to practice unconditional love for themselves. The practice of Karuna is one in which we generate compassion for ourselves. In the book “Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself,” Susan M. Pollak writes, “…have you ever had the wish that a wise and compassionate person would show up at your doorstep just when you needed it the most – when your toddler has a meltdown, when your daughter gets bullied in high school, when you disagree with your partner about parenting, or when you’re just plain overwhelmed?” The following meditation practice encourages us to take on the role of this wise and compassionate guide. Self-compassion, or Karuna, gives us permission to offer the comfort we would share with a friend or loved one to ourselves.

Kindness and Self-Compassion practice for parents:

  • Start by finding a quiet space where you will not be disturbed. Your bedroom, the bathroom, a closet or even the car works. If the sun is shining through the window, that’s an added bonus.
  • Sit in a comfortable position on the floor or on a cushion or chair. Close your eyes if that feels ok. Otherwise, just stare at a neutral spot in front of you.
  • Begin by noticing your breath going in and out of the body, either at the nostrils, the chest or the belly. Using curiosity, follow the flow of the breath from the very start of the inhale, all the way through to the exhale. You can experiment with pausing a couple of seconds at the end of the in-breath and at the end of the out-breath. (This is a form of box breathing). Slowing down the breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system and welcomes calm and tranquility.
  • Once you feel relaxed, notice any emotions or feelings. Is there tension in the neck? Do you have a headache? Is there residual anger or fear? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? See if you can identify and label the feeling or emotion. Usually, when we slow down and get curious, something comes to the surface that needs our attention. 
  • Now, allowing that emotion and sensation to be as it is, start rocking the body in any direction that feels right. Just as you rock your baby to sleep, you are rocking your emotions to stillness. You may like to put one or both hands on your heart, calling in warmth and compassion.
  • Now, ask yourself these questions: “What do I need?” “What does my body need?” Pause and listen for a response. 
  • Take a few minutes to be open to whatever comes up, without judging or censoring your response. You may choose to write this down on paper or just sit with it for several more breaths.
  • With this information in mind, create a mantra for yourself for the rest of this meditation using the following phrases. May I be … May my body be … (fill in the blank for yourself)
    • (For example, May I feel loved. May my body relax. May I feel safe. May my body be at ease.)
  • Repeat your mantra while breathing slowly for as long as you can before ending your meditation with a smile and a sense of gratitude for taking time for yourself.

A quick version of this can be used when you find yourself caught up by emotions or reactions during the day. Stop, take a few slow breaths, ask yourself what you need and create a mantra to repeat. Try it anytime you need some self-compassion.

published in The Taos News, February 10, 2022

Welcoming a Mindful New Year: How to Bring Meditation into Your Family’s Routine.

It’s a new year according to the construct of our human-made 12-month calendar. However, it is not just a new wall or desk calendar. “A new year starts when Earth has made one orbit around the Sun. This takes roughly 365 days, so every new year on the last day of December, we are at the same location around the Sun as last year.” (Astronomicca.com) 

As we get ready to start a new year, many people will resolve to make changes in their life. Most New Year’s resolutions start with honest determination and end within a few weeks or months with lassitude. In this month’s column, I’d like to explain how to bring mindfulness and meditation into your family’s daily routine and make it stick. It isn’t difficult and like any change, it takes willingness, vulnerability, and practice. Meditation is called a “practice” for good reason: it takes repetition, just like an exercise routine, to make it part of our schedule. So how can a family bring mindfulness meditation into an already-busy schedule? It’s as simple as one breath, one present moment at a time, and practice.

The reasons for bringing mindfulness meditation (also called vipassana meditation) into your family’s life are well researched and proven. 

  • Families learn how present-moment mindfulness awareness can bring relaxation and social-emotional wellbeing into their home.
  • Children learn that they aren’t judged by their thoughts, sensations, and feelings.
  • Mindfulness is a way to feel good about yourself, just as we are in this moment, and it settles the nervous system in the process.
  • Parents model what it looks like to be confident yet relaxed; to be happy and at ease, while accepting that life is never perfect.
  • Families build strong bonds through a shared activity; the time spent together is an investment in compassionate relationship-building.

Five ways to bring mindfulness into your family’s daily routine:

  • When the family is gathered at the dinner table, mindfulness can be incorporated in the first few minutes before eating. Whether you say a prayer or express gratitude for the food being shared, mindfulness can be as simple as a couple of minutes of noticing the body, the food, the colors, and acknowledging all that came together for the food to be available at this moment. In my family, we say a prayer and when it’s my turn, I start by having everyone feel their feet on the floor, head reaching the sky, sitting area on the chair, and what is felt at the heart center. Then, we thank all life forms for the food on the table and all those who had a part in bringing the meal to the table.
  • When the family is driving to and from school or another activity, we can notice sounds, sights, feelings internally and externally in our environment. Electronic devices are put down for a short period of present-moment mindfulness. 
  • When picking up children from school, parents generally ask, “How was school today?” Often, the answer is a basic, “Fine”. We can encourage more discussion by asking the question, “What is something that happened today that felt good, brought joy, made you laugh?” Then, we can ask, “How did that feel in your body?” It may be harder for younger children to tap into this and they will learn how with practice.
  • During an active time of the day, we can do some mindful movement. Dancing, yoga, walking, and just jumping around can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Encouraging children to notice what their body is doing, how it feels in the different limbs to move, what sounds are generated by the activity, and if this is happening outside, noticing nature is a great mindful activity.
  • Before settling in for the night, the parent can lead a body scan to bring mindful relaxation to the bedtime routine. Bringing attention to each part of the body, starting from the feet or the head is very relaxing. Imagining a butterfly landing on each part of the body can add visualization to the body scan.

I suggest experimenting with one of these for one week at a time and then discussing with your children which ones they enjoy. Then, rotate between these mindfulness activities from time to time to keep the experience fresh. Children (and parents) like having a predictable routine and yet can get bored with the same thing after a while. Although meditation is about practice, our minds need variety, too.

published January 13, 2022 in The Taos News

Creating and Sustaining YOUR meditation practice: Meditation 101 – a 6-week course at Be Meditation.

Imagine this scene: You come home from work after a long day at work; tired and hungry. Walking in, you sense tension in the environment. Your first reaction is, “ugh, there goes my relaxing evening!” Then, you remember your mindfulness practice and take a couple deep breaths, feel your feet on the ground, hands at your side and notice your breathing in the body. This switches your attitude to one of curiosity and equanimity. When your partner rushes out of the bedroom with your screaming child in their arms, you smile, take a breath or two, remember self-compassion and conjure empathy for the situation. Your response is, “Hi there. I’m so glad to see you both. Can I join in the fun?” And the evening ends up filled with laughter and love. 

Mindful meditation is a practice with wide-spread benefits, including general relaxation, full-body rest, present moment awareness and emotional wellbeing. There are many types of meditation and while its history goes back many generations into ancient Asian cultures and spiritual traditions, meditation came to the US relatively recently: during the 20th century. Jon Kabat Zinn introduced Mindfulness meditation to medical center patients over 40 years ago. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques have more recently taken hold for the general public. From its inception MBSR has spurred a mindfulness movement that is proving crucial to our spiritual and wellness transformation.

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. Learning to “be present” takes practice and is the foundation of mindfulness. Anyone can learn mindfulness meditation with curious intention and personal commitment. The beginner will find it easier to learn meditation with guidance from experienced teachers at a center such as Be Meditation. Creating and Sustaining YOUR meditation practice: Meditation 101, is an accessible way to learn meditation or renew a hibernating practice. The class will be held for six Thursdays (September 23, 30 and October 7, 14, 21, 28, 2021) at 8:00 pm EST / 5:00 pm PST and each class is 75 minutes.

We know the benefits of meditation and mindfulness; starting and sustaining a practice can be challenging. This 6-week course will give you the foundational skills to bring the powerful tools of meditation into your life in a meaningful way. Meditation is not one-size-fits-all, so we invite you to gather with like-minded people from all over the world and explore the many ways meditation can transform your life. And Inviting a friend to register with you adds a motivating and fun aspect to the course.

Why meditate? One reason is that 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 and deep breathing. By quieting the mind’s reactivity and calming down attachment to emotional thoughts, we settle fight, flight, freeze reactions, thereby stimulating relaxation which helps our body and mind come back to homeostasis.

Another reason is that through mindful awareness we learn about ourselves and our patterned reactions. By sitting in meditation and practicing present-moment awareness, we can pause and explore with curiosity and compassion, our internal and external environments. From this attitude of bearing witness, we learn to accept with equanimity what is going on right now in the present moment: the only time that reality actually happens. Practicing noticing what is going on in the present brings freedom of choice for how we respond to life’s experiences. Viktor Frankl famously wrote, “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. ” That freedom of response may be the most powerful reason to learn mindfulness meditation.

Although there are many meditation traditions, using breath awareness is ubiquitous to all styles. Some of the meditation practices that can help settle the nervous system include body scanning, sense awareness, mantras and breath practice. Using the breath as our attention anchor, we stimulate the vagus nerve (PNS) and move emotional responses away from the limbic brain to the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for logic and thinking. This may sound contradictory since many have heard that meditation involves “letting go of thinking”. Actually, this is a myth and one of the topics that students will learn about in this beginning meditation class. 

Topics of discussion will include how meditation affects the brain, loving kindness meditation, and using mantras and gratitude in mindfulness practice. Students will also learn how to set up a meditation space, and ways to bring mindfulness into their daily routine. Between each class, students will be encouraged to practice at home the skills learned in class. A central aspect of the course is Connection and participants will have the opportunity to share their learning with others in the class. 

Imagine this scene: You come home from a full day at work. Your partner and child greet you at the door with smiles on their faces. After putting down your things, the three of you settle down together for a family mindful moment before sharing the day’s adventures and then planning the rest of the evening together. Be Meditation is excited to welcome you to the life-changing practice of mindful meditation through this 6-week course. Registration is now open: https://www.union.fit/orgs/be-meditation

Being Grateful Is A Much Deeper Emotion

When comparing concepts it is helpful to have definitions in order to start from a common foundation of understanding.

In the Oxford Online Dictionary, Gratitude is defined as the “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Thankful is defined as “pleased and relieved.”

One can right away see a difference emerging between these terms that can aid in making comparisons.

Being grateful is showing appreciation with kindness, whereas being thankful is simply to be pleased and relieved.

Interesting, isn’t it, that to be thankful has a side effect of being “relieved”? Relieved from what one might ask? Thanking seems to be something we do to be because of a sense of obligation.

Remember “the magic word” that we were reminded of growing up? It’s expected that we give thanks for something that has been given to us or an action that someone does for us. Once we say, “thank you”, we’re off the hook, so to speak.

Gratitude seems a deeper response as it contains kindness and appreciation for what we’ve been offered without prior expectation.

“Gratitude is an emotion expressing an appreciation for what one has as opposed to what one wants”, according to Psychology Today.

Furthermore, Harvard Medical School offers that gratitude is a “thankful appreciation for what one receives – tangible or intangible – as they acknowledge the goodness in their lives…”

Apparently being grateful is a much deeper emotion or response to receiving something than being thankful because there is an inherent kindness needed in gratitude.

The response comes from the heart and from being mindful of what was generously offered so the feeling lasts longer.

So, it seems that we get more personal benefit from being grateful and it would be something one would like to cultivate.

Mindful meditation is a practice that helps us be more aware of thoughts, sensations and even to feel gratitude for all that we have in our lives, at least in the present moment, anyway.

The more one integrates gratitude, the more comfortable it will become. With practice one may well notice a change in oneself by feeling grateful as it fills the heart with kindness.

Published in Human Window By Martin Caparrotta  
Updated on 30 October 2020

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.