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.

Mindful Communications

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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.