Meditation for Kids - three stories

Mindfulness in schools is taking off, with wonderful results!

One recent study shows that "mindfulness triples students' ability to focus and participate in class activities." The techniques are being adjusted for kids as young as four or five years of age and can be continuously developed right through college and onward. A 4th Grade Teacher in New York describes the impact on students, “They’re less impulsive with each other, they think about their words before they speak so it definitely spills to into the daily routines.”

School psychologists note that even at these ages (K-5th grades), many students are showing signs of anxiety and difficulty concentrating. The effects of meditation included increased self-confidence and awareness, as well as self-control in dealing with anxieties when they do arise. 

Meanwhile, in Chicago, money is being raised to get young people to a summer mindfulness camp to help them deal with the stresses of violence and poverty around them. There, Depaul University's Dr. Martha Mason teaches young women how to "surf the waves" of the mind. She notes that science is backing up the practice, as well, with studies showing improvements on such things as test scores.

Tools for young meditators:

  • Sound meditation: ring a bowl or bell and having students close their eyes and listen to the sound. They can then listen to the room around them and report back on what they hear. (1-2 minute exercise)
  • Dancing meditation (see video below): instruct students that at the end of a piece of music they should stop, close their eyes, and bring their breathing and awareness into their belly. Play fun music, encourage students to be up and dancing to it for a minute and then stop. The kids should freeze and observe and can report back (2-3 minutes)
  • Observing anger (see video below): have one student act as the 'anger' of another, leading them around and controlling them. Then have the student turn around and say, "I see you, anger" - thus regaining control over the anger. Students can be told that this is how a lot of emotions are (including anxiety and depression). They take control, but we can use breathing and calm to turn and see them and get control back. (3-5 minutes)
  • Raisin meditation: give out raisins to the students. Have them sit with it and very intently observe every possible aspect of the raisin. First looking at it, seeing every tiny feature in the raisin. Then touch: what does it feel like? Where is it softer or firmer? Have them gently move it around between their fingers. Then sound. When they role it and squish it a little bit by the ear, what sounds are produced (they'll be surprised!). Then smell. And finally, slowly, putting the raisin in the mouth, moving it around, exploring it with the tongue and teeth before eventually biting down, releasing all of the flavors, chewing it and swallowing it. (5-8 minutes)
  • Mindful journaling: have students meditate for a minute or two and then write about their feelings for the day. If there is anxiety or anger, where is that felt in the body, can they explore and describe the feelings in writing. This practice will help them see those difficult emotions more clearly and quickly, often before they 'take over' and gain control over the kids. Optional sharing allows them to see that they're not alone and to learn from the experiences of others. (8-12 minutes) 

Lastly, in Ohio, congressman Tim Ryan is working to bring mindfulness to schools in his district. The Democrat has used mindfulness in his own life for years and has even written a book about it, noting that it's not about religion - a worry that some parents have raised (Ryan notes that Marines use it, athletes use it, and he himself is still a Catholic).

Have a look, read more, explore ways to get meditation to young people in your community. If you are in or near Helena, Montana, contact me at justin@mindfulmontana.com for tips or a seminar or course for teachers to learn the tools that can be used in your classrooms.

Entering into Mindfulness: Notes on teaching, sitting, and being mindful

Some reflections on my own meditation practice today are inspired by a facebook friend and fellow meditation teacher, Melanie Yetter. Melanie begins her wonderful piece on her mindfulness meditation sitting by acknowledging that "My experiences during my formal cushion sitting practice varies according to the mood of my mind and the flexibility my body has to offer that day."

This is true for me as well, and I am sure you will find the same. One of the road blocks we can unconsciously put in front of ourselves, however, is to expect this to somehow not be the case. We might expect that meditation is like climbing a ladder, each day we should get a little higher until we reach the top. In reality, each day is completely new. An "amazing sit" yesterday might become the distraction of today (wishing "oh, why can't I settle in to it like that again" over and over...). Or a really rough time - fidgeting, mind wandering, distracted - yesterday might set the stage for wonderful calm and depth today. 

When we come to our meditation cushion, we come with what Suzuki Roshi called "Beginner's Mind" - an openness to the experience in its fullness. Sometimes I have that. Sometimes I don't! And sometimes, even when I think, "okay, beginner's mind time" as I sit down for meditation, once on the cushion, a world of thoughts invades my little solitude. At the end, all I can do is smile and acknowledge that this is where I am at today. 

My typical practice

I like to sit after exercise and a shower. For me, exercise is usually a run (or run-walk if I'm not in shape!) or high-intensity interval training, a sort of fast-paced muscle-building routine. I prefer to use a buckwheat "zafu" or meditation cushion to maintain cross-legged posture, though sometimes I use a wooden bench and use a kneeling position. 

Once in my posture, I typically use a basic timer on my phone or sometimes log into Insight Timer for their customizable timer and sounds. I tend to see all of the gadgets as "crutches" that could easily become distractions in their own right, so I urge caution with them. Setting a 20-minute timer on my phone and beginning is typically the quickest and most beneficial entry into the meditation for me.

From there I bring my attention to my breathing. The sensations of the air reaching my body, entering, and filling my chest and belly. Once this is established I simply "rest" there. Sometimes that takes a while. Sometimes there is a lot going on and the mind is constantly abuzz with thoughts, memories, planning, and so on. Sometimes an entire 20-minute sit is consumed by those. And that's okay. I bow, smile, and go on with my day. 

But more often than not, around 5 minutes in or so, any kind of busy-mind begins to calm down and rest or focus arises. Melanie offers some techniques she uses, that I'll share and add to here, to help along the way:

Counting 1-5, inhale 1 exhale 2 inhale 3 exhale 4 inhale 5 exhale 4 inhale 3 exhale 2 inhale 1
What is This, Don’t Know, using the practice of a curious child with each passing moment, Zen practice don’t know mind or beginner’s mind.
Contract and Relax Body, inhale contract abdominal region, chest, hands & arms, shoulders up to ears, jaw, whole face, hold for a count of three and exhale releasing until belly is soft and shoulders relax, good for racing mind/tense body.
Candle Gazing, night time practice, starting with eye movement exercise, gazing at flame until you are able to bring the light within, relaxing and warming practice.

My counting practice is slightly different. Usually, I will count, silently to myself, on the inhale or on the exhale. So, inhaling ("one"), exhale. Inhale ("two"), exhale. And so on until I reach 10 (if I reach 10), and starting again at one. Whenever the mind wanders, I gently note "wandering" and bring it back to where I was last, or I start again at one. 

The curiosity practice is excellent as one becomes more adept in meditation. In my teaching, I urge students to develop curiosity toward the breathing: knowing that each moment provides unique sensations, if only we are open to feeling and observing them. Curiosity with thoughts and emotions that arise can be used later, once one has a firmly established practice - as it can otherwise lead into daydreaming and fantasizing. 

The contract and relax practice is not one I do much. But an article recently sent to me by a friend has piqued my interest, so I might incorporate it more. It is a useful way of "coming into the body" and feeling clearly what tension feels like. I tend to do a gentler practice, having students place their hands on their belly or heart, both places of tension in many people, and having them sense the tightness or openness there as they breathe and undertake the practice. Both of these techniques provide "bio-feedback" to the meditator, connecting the mind and body in consciousness, which is essential to mindful living.

In my daily practice, I might use the "hand on heart" or "hand on belly" technique from time to time or the counting. It is a matter of trying and seeing what feels right and what brings my focus into the breathing. This is why teachers offer a variety of methods. A single method might not work, leading to discouragement. Yet, too many methods and one might get lost in the variety and detail. So, a fair number should be taught and tried. Mostly, these days I focus on the point where the air first enters and leaves the body and this is enough to establish concentration.

And that is my practice in brief. It is simple. It is always a bit different. And some days I don't "acheive" much calm or focus. And that's okay because it's just practice and there is always tomorrow.

The author meditating near Polebridge, Montana, 2009.

The author meditating near Polebridge, Montana, 2009.

Join us for Philosophy and Mindfulness for Seniors

This week and last, Marisa Diaz-Waian from Merlin CCC and I had the opportunity to offer two introductory sessions of mindfulness and guided philosophical discussion with seniors, caregivers, and friends at Touchmark on Saddle Drive.

We gathered there, in a large circle (23 participants in the first week) and introduced both philosophy as a Western practice of seeking out the good life, and mindfulness practice, notably based in a Buddhist philosophy of ethics, meditation (of which part is mindfulness), and wisdom.

Our job was not to lecture for the 60-minute sessions, but rather to introduce the concept of philosophy and to do some short guided meditations, interspersed with open dialogue. Both times we simply asked, "what are you interested in? What are the big questions of your life right now?" (emphasis on right now). In our first week, we covered gender roles - my how they've changed since some of these folks were young - and power dynamics, "who gets to say what is right and wrong?"

In week two we spent a good amount of time discussing the nature of friendship, something that was on one gentleman's mind as he reminisced about losing a number of friends in recent weeks. Friendship, Marisa and I agreed, is a topic that gets too little attention in philosophy. One participant discussed three levels of friends she has had, mirroring perfectly - and to my delight - the kinds of friendship discussed by Aristotle.

The point of the philosophical discussion is not to solve any of the great questions in life, but rather to build community and hone our own understandings. Marisa and I, both trained in philosophy, can guide participants through historical examples, but it is the participants own lives and experiences that give substance to the conversation. 

In each session, we did one introductory guided meditation on the breath and one concluding mindfulness of breathing practice.

As stated on our "mindfulness" page:

Mindfulness has be found to reduce depression and loneliness. A UCLA study found that seniors who took an eight-week meditation program significantly decreased rates of self-reported loneliness. They report, furthermore, that "Feeling lonely has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression and even premature death." So the ripple-effects of the mindfulness are likely to spread into other areas of life. In fact, one other study traced a direct link between mindfulness and improved mood in seniors who added the practice to their lives. If the bottom line is your main interest, it's also worth pointing out that mindfulness was found to reduce healthcare costs over a 5-year period by approximately 25%.

 

(updated from the flyer available here: http://ebulletin.touchmark.com/thmt/1714465.aspx) 

(updated from the flyer available here: http://ebulletin.touchmark.com/thmt/1714465.aspx) 

Meditate with the Dalai Lama

It was in the autumn of 2005 when I first encountered and meditated with the Dalai Lama. I had just completed a year in England working on a Masters degree in Buddhist Studies. Through some lucky connections, an email appeared one day saying that a ticket was available for me, for free, to sit with the Dalai Lama for a day - with about 1000 other people - while he taught on the chapter on overcoming anger from Shantideva's "Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life." That was one of his 'private' talks, followed by a large public audience at the University of Arizona in front of more than 15,000 people.

In 2010, as a teacher on a program in India, I again had the opportunity to see and meditate with the Dalai Lama. This time it was in his mountain home in Dharamsala, India, and I was surrounded by mostly Tibetan monks of various ages, together munching on chunks of dense bread with traditional salted yak butter tea.

It is not easy, especially for us in rugged and rural Western Montana, to have such an opportunity and I am incredibly lucky to have had these two chances to encounter him. As countless people will attest, he really does have certain qualities of kindness and calm that radiate outward, touching all who come in contact with him. 

These qualities, he will tell you, are a result of much practice. And the practices he has spent a lifetime mastering are available to all who wish to learn them. Here, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta visits the Dalai Lama for a rare discussion of the activities that have shaped this great religious leader.

As Dr. Gupta notes, it is reassuring to know that the Dalai Lama himself has difficulty meditating sometimes. The key is practice though, and good instruction. Generally, one begins with calming meditations, usually on the breath or an object such as a candle flame. It takes much practice, but over time, one can train the mind to rest on that object for extended periods of time with the qualities of calm and concentration.

It takes a pretty large amount of work to stick with this meditation - often with days of just frustration. But, like going to a gym or training a puppy, progress does happen, often seemingly out of the blue. "Ah-ha moments" arise as clarity develops in the meditation and around it in your everyday life.

Then one can move on to "analytical meditation" where one brings in aspects of one's life to examine more closely. One can extend this out to noticing certain things, such as change, as a quality of all of our experience and the world itself. 

You can see more from CNN's "Vital Signs" - Mindful Meditation with the Dalai Lama here.

Mindfulness and Healthcare: an ancient truth finds new meaning

The Wharton School at UPenn hosted a dialogue with physician and professor Ronald Epstein on the topic of mindfulness in medicine. The discussion is illuminating in that it raises the question: why isn't mindfulness already central to medicine?

Epstein tells us that mindfulness is, in a way, an ancient part of medical science traceable to the Greeks who stated that a doctor must know himself through and through in order to treat patients. 

Today, as they discuss, burnout among medical professionals is enormous. "The burnout problem is not just about the well-being of clinicians, but it’s also really about the safety of the public. When you think about that, having a resilient and self-aware and engaged health care workforce is in everybody’s best interest," reports Epstein. Yet, again, the ancient wisdom applies, "physician, heal thyself."

Epstein laments that the medical establishment today focusses too much on others (and at that, often on a symptomatic rather than holistic level) and loses track of the relationship between physician and patient that is needed for optimal health for both.

The practice of mindfulness, now being implemented in countless fields in the West, helps you to know, "your own mind and how it works, how you take in information, how you process information, and what biases you have," states Epstein. This extends from the practice itself into your everyday life, from learning to be more mindful about what we consume, in food or media or purchases, to stressful situations such as those that those in the medical field often face today.

Read more and listen to the conversation at the Wharton Knowledge site.

Practice Mindfulness to look on Bright Side of Life

January is a difficult month for many. The longer days are returning, but slowly. And the excitement (or dread) of the holidays has all passed. Now to get on with the year.

For those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, this can be a particularly hard time of year. Luckily, today the stigma of saddness, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues is beginning to lift. Resources are continuing to be developed, from professional mental health services, to community support groups, to alternative and adjunct treatments such as mindfulness meditation.

Research shows that depression, in its many forms, is extremely common. You're not alone if you suffer any kind of depression.

According to NAMI:

  • 6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

  • Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18–44.

While severe conditions should lead you to a trained mental health professional, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that mindfulness training can treat minor depressive episodes and can help in the treatment of major issues - alongside any number of traditional therapies.

Read more about forms of mindfulness based therapy for depression and stress. If you are in therapy, ask your therapist/counselor about adding mindfulness training to your treatment. And if you'd like to learn it for yourself, seek out and find a qualified mindfulness meditation teacher in your area.

Mindfulness, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally," teaches us the skill of seeing painful emotional states or thoughts as they arise in our experience before they've been able to take ahold of us. We learn to see anxiety or negative feelings as simply states or conditions of the mind - often based in past experiences - that we can look at and choose to attend to. 

The result is an active (never passive) and intentional approach to difficult emotions, when and as they arise.

Five Tools for Mindfulness you can Practice Today

First, a very Merry Christmas too everyone out there. Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, and Buddha-mas too!

The darkest night of the year is behind us. Light is ever on the increase. The cold and gray might still be here, but we know these are temporary. And the stillness under snowy skies is a reminder to find our peace within.

No, we don't have to go to Thailand and ordain as a Buddhist monk to "find ourselves." We can do the same right here, wherever we are, in this very moment.

It does take time though, and it is a practice to be developed along with deeper changes in your life (deeper understanding of yourself and others, greater kindness and compassion toward the world as a whole). In Buddhism this is called the 3-fold path: ethics, meditation, wisdom. It doesn't matter exactly where you start (ethics is usually first, simply developing kindness and generosity), but all three work together to help strengthen one another. 

That aside, five quick ways to start developing mindfulness (a key to the meditation component of the path):

  1. Take three conscious breaths. Feel your body as you inhale, the rise of chest and belly, and then the fall on the exhale. Notice that there are sensations occurring at each and every moment. 
  2. Do this again with eyes closed. See if your mind can enter into the sensations of breathing more when the eyes are closed. 
  3. Appreciate the body you have. It's easy to dislike this or that, but for a moment just appreciate the wonders of this human body and the opportunities it gives us.
  4. Appreciate the mind you have. Buddhists speak of the "precious human rebirth" because it gives us the perfect set of conditions: a fair amount of suffering to let us know we need to work on ourselves and our world, along with great intelligence capable of getting it done. Think about the possibilities before you thanks to your wondrous mind.
  5. Appreciate the world around you. The cold if it's cold, the warmth of the sun if it is out, the incredible built environment we humans have created, the even-more-incredible sanctuary of nature beyond our activities. 

This is where we are.

With a mind of appreciation and openness to the great potentials of life, go forth (or back to your family) and make the world a little better today, this week, and into 2017.

Give the Gift of Mindfulness

Need a last-minute gift? Need a break from the hustle and bustle of modern life to just be with and examine your own thoughts? Need tools for dealing with stress, anxiety, chronic pain, the ennui caused by 21st-century neoliberal patriarchal capitalism? 

We're working on it - and we'd love to have you join us at Mindful Montana. 

In 2016 I, Justin Whitaker, defended my PhD thesis in Buddhist ethics and completed a Certified Meditation Teacher training. I've been a meditator and student of religion and philosophy since 2000 and I have been teaching, formally and informally, since 2003. In April and May of 2016 I offered my first mindfulness course at my friend's yoga studio here in Helena (Hot Yoga Helena). Then in September-November I offered a second, longer course at the same studio. In that course we went from 15 people to over 25 and I wound up turning away many interested participants. 

Now we're working with my friend Marisa and her non-profit, Merlin CCC, to offer a course in January, 4 weeks of Mindfulness for Beginners, at the beautiful Reeder's Alley Convention Center (the old Stonehouse Restaurant).

In 2017 we will be partnering more with Merlin CCC, Hot Yoga Helena, and others to offer mindfulness meditation throughout Helena and beyond.

You can support our vision today and commit yourself (and a friend!) to meditation in the new year by picking up a 2017 Mindfulness Pass. 

Until January 1st only: each already discounted pass will be 10% off. 

$67.50 for one

$117 for two

Follow the links through paypal and we will email you to complete the transaction; getting names for the pass(es). We will create personalized passes for everyone that can then be downloaded and printed. If you wish we can send a paper version to you as well (these will not arrive by Christmas).

Mindfulness may be the perfect answer to holiday excess and stress

Winter in Montana can be brutal. The short days, gray, snowy skies, and cold weather can work together to cut you off from healthy habits. Shopping, excesses in food and drink, an difficult family situations can add enormous stress on top of that for both the body and mind. 

For many decades now, the Buddhist teachings on mindfulness have been transformed into a secularized, Western context, bringing countless benefits ranging from chronic pain relief and addiction relapse prevention to general increased wellness in individuals. 

The heart of mindfulness practice is living fully in the present moment. That means that:

  • if you're at work, your mind is at work, not thinking about the slippery roads or your mother-in-law's impending visit.
  • If you're with family, your mind and attention is with your family.
  • If you're planning out your holiday shopping list, your mind is fully there, not constantly distracted.

There is a misconception that "being present" means one cannot think about the past or future. You can! It just means that you do so in an intentional manner. This takes practice. Our society drives us toward constant multi-tasking, and the health and attention costs are increasingly well-documented. Multi-tasking slows us down. It makes us unhappy. 

An antidote to this is mindfulness practice. As mentioned above, the list of benefits from mindfulness practice continues to grow, and today it is being discussed by academics in terms of our behaviors as consumers - an ideal topic this time of year:

“We believe that mindfulness—with its many benefits being increasingly corroborated through an array of scholarly approaches—is reaching a tipping point of being accepted, like physical exercise, as an essential element of well-being.”

“If we are looking for a paradigm shift toward a more mindful consumption culture, it behooves all change agents—academics, marketing practitioners, consumers, and policy makers—to develop their own proficiency for mindfulness to equip themselves for more successfully confronting, with lucidity and compassion, the complex and imposing problems of today’s world.”

Think about living these next few weeks - and the year ahead - with lucidity and compassion.

The study suggests that mindfulness can help in a number of specific areas of our lives:

  1. Financial well-being: cultivating the ability to make decisions in alignment with our deeper values and passing up "impulse buys" that make us happy in the very short term but add to financial stress over the long run.
  2. Decreased overall materialism: cultivating inner joy and well-being reduces pressures to spend money based on societal norms or ideals, one also develops the ability to enjoy the cleverness of marketing tactics instead of reacting to them.
  3. Family: turning away from the massive over-stimulus of holiday shopping means more time to turn toward people we love
  4. The environment: thinking deeply about the products we buy, we can ask about the processes that produced it, the packaging, the whole cost to our planet. Quick, easy, cheap items become less appealing when we think in this way. Instead we search for locally made, quality, and long-lasting items. These cost more in general in the short-run, but benefit the earth and, more often than not, last many many times longer than their cheaper counterparts - in the end saving us money.
  5. Social wellness: practicing mindfulness in our hectic shopping adventures will make us more compassionate for ourselves and all of those other people out there who are often deeply stressed out and mindless in their consumption. Be kind in the jam-packed parking lots and in the store aisles. So many others out there are under tremendous stress and it does us, them, and the world no good to get angry toward them.

So be kind to yourself. Make mindfulness part of your winter tradition this year.

Mindful Montana, a recently created company devoted to teaching mindfulness and loving-kindness practices in the Helena community, will offer a 4-week Introduction to Mindfulness course starting January 8th. This course is kindly co-sponsored by MerlinCCC, a philosophy-based non-profit located in Reeder's Alley. If you're ready to give mindfulness a try, for yourself and those around you, see the MerlinCCC website for more information and to register.

We will also offer several more courses, workshops, and seminars throughout 2017. If you can't make it to the January course, you can still get a 2017 Mindfulness Pass: good for one course or workshop (a $79-119 value) for $75 now or two for $130.

The fine print: 2017 Mindfulness Passes will be good for the full year and will be redeemable at at least five (5) courses/workshops during the year. Passes can be bought for yourself or as a gift, but they are non-transferable and cannot be canceled or returned for cash value. They are a commitment to practice. Once purchased, an email will be sent to you with instructions and a paper "gift certificate" can be mailed to you and/or the gift recipient.