Tonglen practice for awakening compassion

Children have an innate capacity for generating kindness towards others.

One of my favorite meditation practices is Tonglen and a well-known teacher of this practice is Pema Chödrön.  The word tonglen comes from Tibetan language and translates as giving and taking. Tong means giving or sending, and len means receiving or taking. Pema explains that in tonglen practice “we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we … begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.” In basic terms, tonglen meditation uses visualization and breath-focus to transform negative energy into positive.

I first learned about tonglen during a meditation-leader program at Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness from which I graduated in 2021. I was so intrigued with tonglen that my final paper was about comparing the practice to the heart language found in poetry. 

Historically, tonglen originated in India and was brought to Tibet around the 11th century as a way to help those who were suffering from serious diseases, and also so people might heal themselves so they could continue to help others. 

Tonglen is similar to Loving Kindness (Mettà) in that we are using the transformative power of the heart to channel healing. Although the overall intention of these practices is similar, tonglen is different in that we actually welcome suffering into our hearts. We feel the pain and sadness before allowing the heart to feel compassion and extending it outward into the world.

Compassion is not the same as empathy. A working definition of compassion says it is “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.” (greatergood.berkeley.edu) So, we can understand the subtle difference to be that empathy is an ability to understand another’s emotions, whereas with compassion we also desire to relieve their suffering.

Pema explains the compassion practice further: “Usually, we look away when we see someone suffering. Their pain brings up our fear or anger; it brings up our resistance and confusion. So we can also do tonglen for all the people just like ourselves—all those who wish to be compassionate but instead are afraid, who wish to be brave but instead are cowardly. Rather than beating ourselves up, we can use our personal stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world. Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us. We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.”

The following short tonglen practice can be offered for those who are ill, those who are dying or have already passed, or those people in pain of any kind. Although this is a shortened version, tonglen is traditionally an extended meditation practice.

Tonglen practice for families and groups. Young children can be invited to draw during this practice and use their creativity to channel compassion.

  1. Sitting in stillness with eyes closed. Generate open awareness as you watch the breath go in and out, inviting the desire to fully awaken to compassion. Bring your attention to the heart and welcome feelings of love – this could be a golden light, an image of the Buddha, a “feel-good” being, or just an overall feeling of warmth. You may also choose to place your hands on your heart.
  2. Visualization of a person’s suffering using the breath and sensations. Breathing in and out, welcome awareness of yours or someone else’s suffering. Name the suffering (sadness, grief, pain). See the situation as it is in as much detail as you wish. 
  3. Receiving and taking in suffering. Focus on the situation by seeing an image of the suffering. Use the in-breath to receive the image and with the out-breath, transform it into something more positive. You may try using smoke that changes into healing white light. You can also see the person as being in pain and then visualize their face turning into a smile. As you do this, recite several times: May this pain and suffering be released.
  4. Expanding compassion by extending it out to all who are in the same situation. Using the same in-and-out breath practice described above, visualize and welcome awareness of all who feel the same kind of suffering. On each out-breath offer them the mantra: May this pain and suffering be released. 
  5. Conclusion of the practice. Sit in silence for several more breaths, enjoying the feeling of release and transformation, Recite the final mantra: May all beings be well and live with ease. When ready, open your eyes slowly, bringing awareness back to the space you’re in, noticing your surroundings and all sensations that are present within you. 

(Please note that mindfulness and meditation are not a substitute for medical therapy.)

Originally published in The Taos News, January 5, 2022

The Impermanence of Life:

Mindfulness and the change of seasons

I received an email newsletter from Ten Percent Happier, a meditation app that offers many types of meditation and teachings. The article shared was entitled, “The Joy and Dread of Autumn” by Jay Michaelson and the topic connected to my heart. It speaks to the impermanence of life and how nature dies with the change of seasons. Michaelson writes, “At this time each autumn, as leaves begin to fall in earnest … I actually feel a desire to somehow paste them back onto the trees.” Reading this I thought to myself, “yeah, that’s how I feel.” 

Surely, fall is a beautiful season and recently my family was in New Hampshire where the sugar maple leaves change to deep colors of red and maroon. Along with the more common yellow and orange, fall’s palette is really spectacular. Even on the ground, the leaves create a gorgeous contrast between the still-green grass and beige sidewalks. It’s as if the forests are on fire with color and the sparks are on the ground. 

“Even if the autumn leaves are riotously beautiful, the bare branches of February are bleak and dour,” writes the author, who says he suffers from seasonal affective disorder. The mind knows that death is near so with the colored leaves soon turning brown, the trees will be bare for the next 6 or 7 months. I realize that I’m a green-season person even though I have an autumn birthday and am grateful to live in a region where there is sunshine all year. So in this conundrum, mindfulness helps me practice with emotions, thoughts and sensations conjured up by the change of seasons. I notice the grasping and aversion felt in my body as churning in the stomach and heaviness of heart. I understand that these feelings are uncomfortable, even depressing. I allow myself to explore the sadness when fall is giving way to winter and remind myself in a moment of wisdom that this is a predictable journey of life and death which is temporary and will in a few months transition again to the seasons of rebirth. I try to make friends with my emotions using self-compassion, reminding myself that the flowers and green leaves WILL return. Apple crisp and pumpkin pie are delicious. Wood burning in the fireplace is cozy and all is well in this moment. It’s the cycle of life.

The following family meditation is done outdoors on a hike or where ever we can find an area to be among trees. We keep eyes open and can choose to either sit or lie down for this practice.

Autumn Family Meditation

Begin by feeling the areas of the body in contact with the ground. Sitting, the feet and legs are touching the earth while lying down, the whole back body will be heavy and grounded.

The leader directs everyone to take several deep breaths in through the nose and out the mouth to settle the nervous system and center the body in the meditation space.

The leader then asks everyone how they feel about the change of seasons. Some like it just fine while others may be feeling a little grasping for summer or aversion of fall. It’s a personal thing either way and no need to answer out loud. This is a moment of introspective contemplation. 

Next we do a body scan, moving our attention progressively from one end of the body to the other while noticing any areas that are tense or tight. Those are where the emotions of the change of seasons are physically being felt. 

Looking around, what do we see in the trees and plants around us. What colors are the leaves, branches, plants, vines, etc? Are there signs of life or is everything pretty much asleep?

Using the sense of touch or body sensations, what’s the temperature of the air? Cool, warm, etc. Is there a scent to the change of seasons? Dirt, decaying leaves, evergreens…

What nature sounds are we aware of? Birds, squirrels, a breeze in the trees blowing leaves to the ground? There may be fewer animal sounds when the season is changing to winter.

Once the atmosphere of the practice has been established, we continue to notice the in and out breath and remain in silence, allowing the body and mind to interact with the breath and the environment around us, noticing what our awareness wishes to tune into.

When enough time has passed, we take a few deep breaths together and look around us, mindfully seeing details of nature’s beauty that is a constant in the cycle of life. 

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

https://www.taosnews.com/opinion/columns/the-impermanent-cycle-of-life/article_50a53031-a9c6-5a2d-9d9a-8656aa735797.html

Awaken curiosity and creativity

Encouraging mindfulness during creative endeavors.

Welcoming mindfulness into artistic projects is a fun way to incorporate curiosity and creativity into our daily life. Many of us have seen the extreme concentration of children when they are fully engaged in an artistic project: drawing, coloring, finger painting, or writing a story. Their whole body is engaged. I remember my daughter would stick her tongue out when focused on a project and when I saw that I knew she was in her creative zone.

I am a life-long creative and always have an artistic project in the works. Knitting, crocheting, sewing, cooking, and writing fill my heart with a joyful calm. The mind is focused, the heart is connected and I know this is a special time. Recently, I began guiding monthly Meditative Creations classes. We use the power of mindfulness to enhance focus and curiosity. Whether it is coloring a mandala, free-drawing, knitting, or journaling, mindfulness awakens what is happening inside and out. Using mindfulness, we pay close attention and use the five senses as a way to invite curiosity.

In an article entitled Mindfulness and Creativity published in the Canadian Teacher Magazine, Peggy Bochun quotes Harvard neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel Siegel. “Mindfulness helps fine-tune brain connections and creates integration by developing new neural pathways.” When we incorporate mindfulness into creative activities, the brain can focus intently on what is being created and we are able to integrate “the whole of the body, both hemispheres of the brain, and memory” which develops new ways of engaging with the project. 

For example, when we are drawing, mindfulness helps bring full attention to the hand-eye activity. The mind is in the background as we focus intently on what the hands are doing. We notice the colors, the texture, the feeling of the instruments in the hand, and the sound of drawing on paper. When knitting or crocheting, we bring full attention to the movement of the needles or hook and the sensation of the yarn in the fingers and hands. The sense of smell can be used to notice the odor of colored markers or pencils as we draw or paint designs. The eyes are engaged as we pay attention to the colors of our creation as well as the rhythmic pattern of the activity. Periodically, we may stop, breathe, and notice our whole body in space playing a role in channeling creativity. 

The following is a group activity and each person has their own project to work on. The practice requires a leader who guides everyone through the five senses as well as inviting moments of silence.

Meditative Creations Practice

We begin by describing to each other what we are creating. Just a simple sharing of the project. “I’m drawing a picture. I’m coloring a mandala. I’m knitting a scarf, etc.”

We begin by noticing our body and our breath. Taking a few slow, deep breaths in the nose and out the mouth, we allow the body and the nervous system to calm down. This helps us to be ready to focus on our project.

The leader will then invite everyone to bring mindfulness through the five senses by asking the following phrases and encouraging participants to reply silently to themselves. This practice requires silence and individual attention. (If helpful, background acoustic music can be played).

What do you see? The eyes are needed to direct what you’re doing.

What do you feel with your fingers? The sense of touch is a central part of your project. Do you feel the pencil, marker, hook, needle, etc? Is the instrument hard, smooth, sharp, or dull?

What do you hear? Is the pencil or marker making a sound as it draws or colors on the paper? Do the needles make a clicking sound? What sound does your project make?

What do you smell? Is there a smell to the project or materials you’re using? Or is there a scent in the environment where we are all creating?

What do you taste? Sometimes smell and taste are closely related and if there is a smell to the project or environment, it may bring up a taste or remind us of a past activity.

When done, we put down our projects, close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, notice our body in space and then open the eyes and look closely at what we’ve created. The leader may choose to ask participants what they notice about their project or whether there are thoughts and realizations that have come up as a result of doing this meditative creation practice.

Published in the Taos News, October 13, 2022

Meditating Through Transitions:

Using equanimity and mindfulness during times of change.

Published September 15, 2022 in The Taos News

It is said that the one thing constant in life is change. Transitions are sometimes difficult and we grow in many ways as we experience times of change. Everything changes, from the seasons, our health, our thoughts, and our bodies, to our perspectives on life. The way we understood and thought of life as a child is not what we understand as adults. We continue to learn and evolve as humans based on what is going on right now and how we relate to each situation. 

Equanimity is a way to work with change that helps us accept transitions with grace and patience. Equanimity is defined as, “mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” How do we bring mental calmness and composure to difficult situations? Life can be really challenging and many times it seems we will never make it through. Equanimity helps us bring ease and acceptance into stressful and unpleasant experiences so that we are at peace no matter what changes come into our life. 

In an article in Lion’s Roar entitled Finding a Better Balance, author Christiane Wolf writes about how equanimity can protect us from emotional overreaction and allow us to rest in a more balanced perspective. She explains a few things we can do to bring equanimity into how we relate to life.

  • Be willing and able to accept things as they are in each moment— whether they’re challenging, boring, exciting, disappointing, or even exactly what we want.
  • Equanimity should not be confused with indifference. Equanimity isn’t gritting your teeth or white-knuckling it. Rather, it’s caring deeply with acceptance and nonreactivity.
  • Equanimity and mindfulness are closely interwoven and mutually reinforcing. Through mindfulness, we can observe the flow of thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the body without having a knee-jerk reaction. 
  • Living life in a conscious way will make us more equanimous over time but we don’t have to leave that up to the worldly winds. We can practice it deliberately. Ultimately, our equanimity isn’t only good for us, but also for everyone we encounter.

The following practice is a group contemplation on change. We sit together in a circle and one person shares the reading while everyone else listens attentively. Then, we all answer the final questions and discuss together how we can bring equanimity to changes in our daily life.

Equanimity Contemplation and Meditation

Change surrounds us. It lies within us, too. The trees in the yard have changed. They’ve grown taller. Their leaves die and scatter on the ground in the fall. We don’t resemble our baby pictures much anymore, either. Like trees, we’ve grown up. As babies, we couldn’t walk. But we learned to run, ride bikes, go out alone to movies and parties. 

Some changes we don’t notice while they’re going on. The snow melts; the birds fly south; our hair grows a little every day. Other changes startle us. A best friend moves away. Perhaps a favorite grandparent dies. These changes we wish hadn’t happened, and we have to remember that change is as natural as breathing. We can’t keep it from happening, but we can trust that change never means to harm us. It’s a sign we’re growing up and becoming more resilient. 

What changes have you noticed today? 
Choose one change and explain how you can bring equanimity to it. 
(How can you be mindful of what happened and accept it without getting wound up in despair or over-reactivity?)
This contemplation was inspired by the book, Today’s Gift by the Hazelden Foundation. Article photo courtesy Melissa Askew for Unsplash.

Meditating with Mother Nature:

Showing gratitude for our relationship with the natural world.

Published August 11, 2022 in the Taos News.

Meditating in nature is a satisfying activity. Many enjoy sitting under a tree or by a stream, lying on our back in a meadow, or just sitting on a bench in the backyard. Communing with nature can be a rewarding experience, especially if we are showing gratitude and paying close attention to what is around us. In the book, Awake in the Wild, author Mark Coleman writes, “Nature has the power to transform and awaken us. For centuries, monks, mystics, and other individuals have lived, meditated, and sought refuge in the forests, deserts, and mountains.” 

Recently, I spent 4 days in a hermitage at Lama Foundation. This is something I’ve enjoyed since 2008. When I was teaching, a personal retreat helped me nurture inner strength before going back to the classroom. As a retired educator, I enjoy silent retreats as a way to feed a relationship with nature and all life forms. This fall, I’m looking forward to a 7-day group retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center. I highly recommend retreats to parents and individuals; it’s a great way to draw inspiration from stillness, tranquility, and inner wisdom while close to nature.

Mark Coleman is a meditation teacher who incorporates Buddhist philosophy. I practiced with him in 2020 when an in-person retreat at Vallecitos was canceled due to Covid. It was transformed into an online at-home meditation retreat that was really lovely. Mark explained how meditating in nature has a long history. The Buddha spent much time in the forests of northern India and this is where it is said he reached enlightenment under a grove of Bodhi trees. Buddha then spent nearly 50 years teaching and meditating in nature and encouraged his students to meditate at the foot of trees. 

Thich Nhat Hanh was also a firm believer of meditating with nature. “When we look into our own bodily formation, we see Mother Earth inside us, and so the whole universe is inside us, too. Once we have this insight of interbeing, it is possible to have real communication, real communion, with the Earth;” from Love Letters to the Earth. The idea of “interbeing” is very important to Thay and his followers. Interbeing is the belief that we are one with nature, its beings, and all that is part of our planet. We breathe together, hold space together and depend on each other for survival. 

The following practice is intended for families to practice together in a natural setting. Find a quiet place outdoors – the backyard, a city park, next to a stream, or in a forest and enjoy this practice together. It is appropriate for all ages.

Meditating with Mother Nature

Once you’ve found your spot in nature, gather everyone around and find a place to sit. If you have brought chairs, cushions, or blankets, they can make sitting on the ground more comfortable. Barefooted would also be nice.

– As you take your seat, notice what is going on in the body or mind. We can always be aware of something, whether it is thoughts or sensations. This is Mindful Awareness.

– Close your eyes and bring attention to the body. Sense your posture and what parts of the body are in contact with the earth. Sit with as much ease as possible so that relaxation can be present.

– Breathe normally and feel the full movement of your breathing as it moves through the body. As you breathe, feel the air coming in and going out, and imagine that you are breathing with all life forms around you. The plants breathe, animals breathe, insects breathe, etc…Do this for a few minutes together, allowing everyone to enjoy their own breathing sensations as well as the appreciation that there’s a community breathing together.

– Now, bring your awareness to the natural environment around you. What do you hear? What do you feel? Are there sensations in relation to the areas that are in touch with the earth? Tickling of grass, Crumbling of earth, Solidity of rocks …?

– Open your eyes and look around you. What do you see? Trees swaying in the wind. A bird on a branch, an ant on the ground; pay attention carefully and with a curious heart. 

– Allow everyone time to silently engage with their surroundings so that there is an awareness of the relationship we have with all kinds of life forms – the plants, the insects, the trees, the birds, and even the hidden animals. Feel into the fact that we are all part of this living, breathing ecosystem. Even if the family can only sense this for a short time, it is worthwhile, and with practice, the time can to extended. ( Worthy goal is to sit in nature for at least 30 minutes.)

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

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

Small hearts can hold lots of gratitude

Mindful eating practice for families

Gratitude is the theme for November with Thanksgiving and Chanukah holidays coming up. Practicing gratitude is an extremely important skill because it brings joy and appreciation to our life through the power of the heart. It’s mental health and a daily attitude that helps us connect with that which brings us joy. Mindful eating is a perfect mindfulness activity for the month of November and one that can be practiced any time that food is available.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” 

– A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Appreciation through kindness

Gratitude is defined as “readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness” (Webster online dictionary). What’s important in this definition is the willingness to appreciate and to incorporate kindness. We may be appreciative of what we have, what we don’t have, how we feel, or how we are experiencing life and we relate to this with kindness. Being grateful helps us alleviate suffering by bringing our awareness to the positive instead of the negative. It is also a way to practice open-hearted kindness towards others and ourselves.

Daily gratitude practices can be a way to focus on the positive

During this global pandemic, mental health has been affected by stress, worry, and a general malaise that we are all experiencing. As a long-time meditation practitioner and teacher, gratitude practice is a staple in my daily routine. I keep a gratitude journal in which I write what I’m grateful for either at the start or end of the day. I find that practicing gratitude brings present-moment awareness and a way to wind down the mind.

Parenting is challenging so gratitude is a family activity that reaps benefits for everyone.

As a parent to a teenager, I try to model being grateful to remind my family of the benefits of this practice. We often ask each other what we are grateful for at the dinner table or before retiring for the night. We say a gratitude prayer before we eat, thanking all that had a part in the meal. My daughter and husband are getting better at training the mind to focus more on the positive aspects of the day. My family has learned about the power of attraction and when we think positive thoughts, we attract more gratitude and positivity and feelings of well-being. It doesn’t take a lot of time to practice this and can be as simple as pausing, taking three long deep breaths, reflecting on the present moment, and then choosing something or someone for which to be grateful. The practice does take repetition to become routine and it is well worth the effort.  That’s why it is called “a practice.”

Some aspects of life for which we can be grateful:

  • A place to live
  • Work that sustains
  • Food that nourishes the body
  • Feelings that bring awareness to the self
  • Pets who bring unconditional love
  • Family with whom we can communicate 
  • A mind that can choose what to think about
  • A heart that can be open to compassion and empathy
  • A body that is healthy and able to move freely
  • Open spaces in which to exercise
  • Talents we can share with others
  • The present moment in which reality is positive

This gratitude practice is inspired by Thank the Farmer from Mindful Games by Susan Kaiser Greenland and is a mindful eating practice that is perfect for the holiday season. 

Choose a person to “lead” the meditation practice. This person will read the instructions as well as participate. This is a slow practice so make sure to take your time.

  1. Start by picking one item of food. A raisin is commonly used. I have also used popcorn or a piece of cookie. It must be small as this is not a meal or even a snack. It is a mindfulness practice and using our 5 senses, we will explore the story of this food.
  2. With the food in your fingers, notice what it feels like. Smooth, rough, squishy, hard, etc.
  3. With your eyes, notice what it looks like. A cloud, a shape, a bumpy glob, etc.
  4. With your nose, notice what it smells like. Sweet, strong, weird, etc.
  5. With your ears and fingers, notice what it sounds like. Crackles, squeaky, etc.
  6. With your mind, consider where this food grew. A farm, a forest, a garden, etc.
  7. Consider who picked this food? A person, a machine, a family, etc.
  8. Ask yourself how it gets to the store? A truck, a car, a person brings it, etc.
  9. How did it get from the store to your home? Your parent, friend, sibling, etc.
  10. Now, we take a moment to feel gratitude for having this food to eat. Say, “thank you” to everyone who had a part in growing and bringing the food to your home. The farmer, the picker, the truck driver, etc.
  11. Now we put the food on our tongue and notice what it tastes like, before actually eating it. Don’t chew yet! Just let it sit there momentarily.
  12. Finally, we get to chew it… what does it taste like now, after all that mindful awareness? 
  13. Have you thought about your food this way before? Do you think it tastes differently now?

Thanks for trying out this practice. I’d love to hear what your family experienced. Email me at mindfulfrontiers@gmail.com.

Anne-Marie Emanuelli is the founder and Creative Director of Mindful Frontiers LLC, an education-based mindfulness meditation center in northern New Mexico offering classes, workshops, and coaching to children, families, and individuals of all ages and meditation experience. Anne-Marie’s credentials are from Mindful Schools and Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness as well as an 8-week MBSR course. She is a retired NM level 3 licensed classroom teacher and has taught mindfulness to students since 2016.

For more information on Mindful Frontiers and meditation, see our website at MindfulFrontiers.net.

Moods Change Like the Weather: A gratitude practice for families

(A similar version was published in The Taos News, October 14, 2021)

The human brain seems to have a natural tendency to remember negative experiences more than positive interactions. Psychologists refer to this as negativity bias. “Our brains are wired to scout for the bad stuff and fixate on the threat”, says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

Our brain is by function and development a very “old” organ. The part of our brain that is the least developed is the amygdala and is responsible for the fight, flight, freeze reaction to emotional experiences. This inner brain was very important when we were hunter-gatherers because we needed to be ever vigilant of threats to our survival. 

Gratitude is a powerful meditation tool for dealing with our changing moods which I describe as our internal weather patterns.

— Anne-Marie Emanuelli

As humans have evolved, this part of the brain has remained essentially undeveloped. On the other hand, the largest part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, has evolved and continues to develop. This frontal area is responsible for many higher-order functions such as perception, sensation, memory, and interpretation. Meditation and mindfulness stimulate this area of the brain as well as the parasympathetic nervous system that originates in the brainstem and is responsible for relaxation. 

Gratitude is a powerful meditation tool for dealing with our changing moods which I describe as our internal weather patterns. When teaching young children about emotions, I encourage describing them as weather such as stormy, cloudy, rainy, and sunny. Young children understand how the weather feels much easier than describing their emotional state. They know “mad, glad & sad” and it’s more challenging for them to describe how they are feeling with more subtle and specific emotional words. Each child perceives their mood differently so “cloudy” for one child may mean feeling introspective while for another could mean lonely. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that by labeling emotions we move the experience out of the amygdala to the frontal cortex which makes it possible for us to bring mindfulness to the emotion. When we practice gratitude we feel kindness and appreciation for our life experiences. Mindfulness can help us notice thoughts and sensations in the present moment.

The more one welcomes gratitude, the more comfortable one can be with feeling emotions. With practice, the change of moods will settle as the heart fills with kindness. The following practice is intended to help children notice moods & emotions, to bring gratitude and awareness to them, and feel a lifting of internal weather patterns.

Family Meditation Practice: This practice uses gratitude and mindfulness to notice and allow emotions to transform.

First, find a comfortable place to sit together as a family. A circle is a nice configuration that generates unity and attention. Choose a person to “lead” the meditation practice. This person will read the instructions as well as participate.
1. Once everyone is comfortable and still, start with some quiet breathing. Can you feel the rhythm of your breath as it flows in and out of the body?
2. While being aware of your breath, bring attention to your heart center. If you’d like, you can put your hands on your heart. Then, notice how you are feeling inside your body.
3. Each person takes a turn sharing how they are feeling today. What kind of weather describes how that feels? Cloudy, sunny, rainy, stormy, windy, etc. Try to visualize the weather swishing through your body. Everyone gets to share what they are feeling and what kind of weather it is.
4. Now everyone gets quiet again and notices their breathing. After a few calming breaths, imagine/visualize something in your heart like a person, a flower, a stuffed animal, or a special place that brings you joy. Continue breathing in and out while you silently feel gratitude for what you have in your heart.  You can say, “I love you” to that image.
5. Continue visualizing the gratitude image while also noticing the weather going around your body.  The weather is swishing around with the gratitude image in the center of the heart.As we continue feeling the “weather pattern” and visualizing the gratitude image, notice how they merge together into something else, like a sunny day or a quiet, cloudy day. Stay curious about what is happening inside. 
6. When it’s time to close the meditation circle, have everyone describe what they are feeling now. Maybe a word, weather, or a picture can be used. Then, everyone takes a big, deep breath together.
Thank you for trying this meditation.

Bio/Attribution:

Anne-Marie Emanuelli is the founder and Creative Director of Mindful Frontiers LLC, an education-based mindfulness meditation center in northern New Mexico offering classes, workshops, and coaching to children, families, and individuals of all ages and meditation experience. Anne-Marie’s credentials are from Mindful Schools and Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness as well as an 8-week MBSR course. She is a retired NM level 3 licensed classroom teacher and has taught mindfulness to students since 2016.
For more information on Mindful Frontiers and meditation, see our website at MindfulFrontiers.net