You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘meditation’ tag.

People want the quick fix. That’s why short-term diets and five-minute self-help plans are always popular. I would say that in almost all these cases, quick fixes are not great fixes.  But I read this week about recent research on people who deal with anxiety may experience psychological and physiological benefits from a single introductory mindfulness meditation session.

It is a small study, but after participating in an hour-long guided intro session to mindfulness meditation, the participants with high levels of anxiety experienced lower resting heart rates and other cardiovascular risk markers. They self-reported feeling less anxious than at the start of the study.

Maybe more importantly, a week later, the participants still reported anxiety levels that were lower than the levels pre-meditation.

All that from a single mindfulness meditation session. Imagine what a regular practice might accomplish.

Mindfulness means being aware of where you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, withholding judgment, and paying specific attention to breath.

The study I read about had participants meditate for 20 minutes before being led through a 30-minute “body scan” (similar to progressive muscle relaxation). They concluded with 10 minutes of self-guided meditation.

Lately, I’m reading more about “revised meditation.” There are methods that don’t involve sitting motionless on a pillow for hours. In one approach, you just find moments of gratitude and awareness in your day.

Though I may still be somewhat doubtful of a quick fix, I would agree that if you can get in a few minutes every day of mediation in some form, you will benefit.

If meditation just doesn’t work for you, you can do some everyday tasks more mindfully It may sound silly, but you can meditate while you eat. Mindful eating means slowing down, paying attention to your food, and listening to your body.

Adults have been telling children to be mindful for generations, in the sense of them being more conscious or aware of something. Mindfulness, that mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, is at another level of awareness.

You can find a variety of definitions of mindfulness, but it is more associated with meditation and other practices and involves acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It is used to combat stress, improve attention, and often used as a therapeutic technique as well as a spiritual and religious practice.

But is it something we can, or should, teach kids?

benefits: it increases optimism and happiness in classrooms, decreases bullying and aggression, increases compassion and empathy for others and helps students resolve conflicts.

Forbes magazine, an unlikely source, had an article on the benefits of meditation for children, which I don’t think is exactly the same thing as mindfulness.

Research on mindfulness for children is not as extensive as research on adults brains, but what I have seen is positive.

There certainly is no lack of articles online or books for parents and teachers on how-to mindfulness. If you read some of the popular books, such as I Am Peace: A Book of Mindfulness and Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents)  or the more serious Mindfulness for Children, you will find suggestions and exercises that sound pretty similar.

One caveat: to teach mindfulness to a child (yours or others), you should practice it yourself.

For example, there are listening exercises where you focus on a single sound, such as a bell. It doesn’t have to be a special Zen bell or “singing bowl” but you want a long sustained tone that kids will listen to and signal when the sound disappears. Then you focus on all the other sounds surrounding you. As in meditation, it is hard for beginners to turn off all the “noise” of thoughts in their mind and clear it to focus on one single thing. This exercise does that with a literal thing first.

Another activity is to use your sense of smell as the focus. You give the child something fragrant. Not perfume or anything artificial – orange peel, a sprig of mint, a flower. Close your eyes, breathe in and focus only on the smell. Not quite aromatherapy, but a powerful thing to focus on.

Other activities to teach kids mindfulness focus on the other senses and, of course, on breathing. Following your breath is standard in mindfulness practices. With kids, you might have the child put a small object on their belly as they lie on the floor. They breathe in silence for a minute and watch how the object moves up and down. They observe their breath. One article suggests that you tell them that if any other thoughts come to them to turn the thoughts into bubbles and float them away.

I can imagine some parents or teachers saying ” How do i get them to sit or lie still and be silent?” Will mindfulness eliminate tantrums and make a hyperactive child calm? They may become calmer, but that was never an objective of mindfulness or meditation, though it may be a “side effect.”

On the leftbrainbuddha.com site, there are more activities there are some that I learned in adult classes. With kids, you might call this the “squish & relax” exercise. I learned it as a way to relax and it has helped me fall asleep. Lying down with eyes closed, you tense (squish) each muscle in your body starting with your toes and feet and moving up. You hold the muscle tight for a few seconds paying attention to how that feels, and then release. It relaxes the body and is a very real way to understand and be “in the present moment.”

, tighten the muscles in their legs all the way up to their hips, suck in their bellies, squeeze their hands into fists and raise their shoulders up to their heads. Have them hold themselves in their squished up positions for a few seconds, and then fully release and relax. This is a great, fun activity for “loosening up” the body and mind, and is a totally accessible way to get the kids to understand the art of “being present.”

Of course, you would hope these tools would be useful for a child who has trouble sleeping, concentrating on an activity or relaxing, but sharing these activities with your children or your students together is also a way to connect on a different level.

 

ripples pex

I have tried many meditation techniques. There are distinct differences between techniques. Some are formal. Some are religious. Some require great effort.

Most meditation affects the brain, though benefits may vary or be disputed. A study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition identified 3 meditation categories, based on measured brain wave differences.

Under concentration or focus, they placed  types such as Zen and Vipassana.

Under the category of open monitoring is Mindfulness and Kriya Yoga.

Under self-transcending is Transcendental Meditation (TM).

I first became aware of TM like many Americans when The Beatles connected with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1968. It was the Summer of Love and flower power was in full bloom and consciousness was being opened through TM and drugs. I didn’t take it very seriously.  The Maharishi got some criticism from stricter yogis who thought he went commercial. But it seemed to work for them.

The Maharishi died in 2008 but TM continues to promise health, stress relief and spiritual enlightenment and grow its followers. Transcendental Meditation is one specific form of silent mantra meditation.

I rediscovered, honestly just discovered, TM this year. It came to me through Jerry Seinfeld. Yes, the comedian.

Interview by Transcendental Meditation teacher Bob Roth
with Jerry Seinfeld discussing his 40+ years of practicing TM.

Celebrity TM practitioners still get more attention, but there are millions of ordinary folks using the technique. I think that many of them are like me and have tried other techniques but find TM to be completely different.

It never appealed to me with any mediation practices that you needed to “join,” pay money or continue to take classes with experts. I never took to strict rules or rigid practices.

Compared to other techniques, TM is almost effortless. It is easy to learn. Children adapt to it well.

Comparing it to my own Zen experiences, I immediately took to the idea of not having to concentrate. TM is not about the control of the mind. You don’t monitor your thoughts as in any mindfulness practice.

Thankfully, you don’t have to “empty your mind.” I had a lot of trouble with the empty mind and dismissing thoughts. In my last formal Zen session at a monastery, I finally relaxed because I just let the thoughts come – and stay.

My initial excitement with TM was cooled when I started to investigate deeper and found out that you are officially supposed to learn the technique through a standardized seven-step course over six days by a certified TM teacher at a cost of almost $1000. That shut me down.

TM requires that you use a mantra. You would think that you could make one up or get one from a friend who practices, but this item is something no TM practitioner is supposed to ever reveal. It starts to sound like a cult. I found online that:

It is important to receive the mantra from a fully trained Transcendental Meditation teacher because they have been given a selection of mantras which have been passed down through a long line of teachers over thousands of years. The effects are therefore well known both historically and currently to be always positive and life-enhancing.

I don’t like the sound of that.

But the Internet is the place where all knowledge now lives. Do some searching and you can find sites and videos on how to practice TM. You can find sites with mantras.

I suppose this unofficial path may be lacking something, but it works. After all. the seeking is part of finding the path.

Shouldn’t relaxing be easy? But it’s not.

We live in stressful times, but I imagine that times have always been stressful. It could not have been relaxing to have lived in an age when you spent most of your waking day gathering food and trying to survive.

I  have written here a number of times about things that would fall under mental health or relaxation techniques, such as meditation. But I haven’t written about several of the ways I have tried to manage stress or even relax in order to sleep.

This was all inspired by watching a yoga class and seeing the people go into the Savasana or Corpse Pose. It is one that looks to be incredibly easy and yet is sometimes called the most difficult of the asanas. It is “simply” lying on the floor.

How easy is it for you to turn off stress and the world around you and just say, “I’m going to relax now” when you mind is racing with thoughts and your body is tense?

I know that some nights when I am trying to go to sleep and can’t, it seems like trying to relax is actually making me more stressed out.

Some people would tell you that relaxation can be zoning out in front of the TV. But brain research always shows that watching TV actually activates parts of the brain and doesn’t help the areas that control things like sleep. Of course, I will admit to falling asleep while watching TV, but it seems it is not so much the programs that are putting me into sleep mode.

Some relaxation techniques are not at all “New Age” thinking but the result of scientific research. The Mayo Clinic recommends some relaxation techniques.  One of those techniques is one I actually did first learn in a yoga class. The medical term would be progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing each muscle group. I was taught that lying in that corpse pose, I should begin by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes. You then progressively work your way up your body – the calf muscles, knees, thighs, buttocks, fingertips, arm, shoulder, chest, neck and finally even the parts of your face. I was taught to tense muscles for a count of five seconds and then relax them completely before moving up the body.

Doing this while lying on a soft mat after a yoga workout made me want to take a nap. Though I no longer practice any true yoga, I do still use this technique when I want to fall asleep – both for a nap or a night’s sleep. It doesn’t work all the time, but it has about a 50% success rate for me.

Stimulating breath (sometimes called “bellows breath”) is often a yogic breathing techniques designed to raise energy and increase alertness rather than relax you.

Breathing should be easy. We do it all day without even thinking about it. Anyone who has taken a meditation class knows that thinking about breathing is something that is really emphasized. Though I never became convinced that counting my breath was helping me, several breathing exercises have stuck with me as practices.

Most of us breathe quite shallowly. Taking a deep breath is something out of the ordinary.  Sometimes we sigh a deep breath. the doctor asks us to take a few in our checkup. We suck in a big breath after exerting yourself physically. But it is extraordinary rather than ordinary.

Think about how someone who is hyperventilating is told to breathe into a paper bag. Though most of us take shallow breaths and deeper breaths is probably a good practice, hyperventilating is “overbreathing” and in that case it is not a good practice.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is very simple and can be done at almost any time. Some people recommend it as a stress break while seated, perhaps at your desk. I know someone who told me that if he tries to do it before he goes to sleep, he rarely gets past 6 repetitions before he falls asleep.

Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise.
Exhale, completely emptying your lungs through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
Close your mouth, inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale completely again for a count of eight.
This one breath will have an exhalation that is twice as long as inhalation.

I know that this ratio of 4-7-8 is always said to be important, but I find the counting distracting. I modify it to an untimed maximum lung capacity inhalation, hold for four, and then totally empty my lungs. I had my wife time it once and it came out to be about 5-6-8 for me without counting, which is pretty close. A friend told me that rather than counting she repeats a phrase that times out at about the 4-7-8 cycles.

The relaxation response is a state of deep rest that is the opposite of the stress response. When the relaxation response is activated, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes slower and deeper, and your blood pressure drops or stabilizes, your muscles relax and blood flow to the brain increases. It is definitely something to strive for in your day and night.

 

A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

I’m not a Buddhist. At least, I don’t think I follow Buddhism closely enough these days to qualify for the title. I have studied the religion which is now represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha  as a religion and also use it as a philosophy.

A very simplified description of the teaching of Buddha is that life is permeated with suffering which is caused by desire. Suffering ceases when desire ceases. Enlightenment is obtained through right conduct. Wisdom and meditation releases one from desire and therefore, suffering.

I would contend that the path I followed through reading, meditation and even formal study at a Zen monastery was a path of philosophy rather than religion. I never accepted things like reincarnation. I like desire too much.  I consider my path to be a kind of American Buddhism. Some might say it is Western Buddhism.

I don’t use American Buddhism as a negative term, though some genuine Buddhists might see it as such. There are many uses of the word “Zen” attached to everything from playing tennis to the “Zen” of dogs and cats – that seem very wrong applications of Buddhism.  If you were really critical of American Buddhism, it would probably be because you consider it just a kind of self-help program to reduce stress.

It is difficult to define these things. What is Zen Buddhism? On zen-buddhism.net they say that “Trying to explain or define Zen Buddhism, by reducing it to a book, to a few definitions, or to a website is impossible. Instead, it freezes Zen in time and space, thereby weakening its meaning.”

Nevertheless, I will say that Zen Buddhism was an outgrowth of Mahayana, the “meditation” sect of Buddhism. It developed in Japan from its earlier Chinese counterpart. It also divided into two branches.

Binzai is the more austere and aristocratie monasticism that emphasizes meditation on the paradoxes that people may know as koans. (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?)

The other branch is Sōtō which is probably the more popular following. It emphasizes ethical actions and charity, tenderness, benevolence and sympathy, as well as meditation on whatever occurs as illumination.

The Buddhism that seemed to appeal to the American mind offered escape and engagement – two things that may seem to be in opposition. The idea of “10 minute mindfulness” should seem impossibly simplistic and unrealistic to anyone, but the concept sells books and fills workshops.

The latest book I have read related to Buddhism is by Robert Wright. In Why Buddhism is True, Wright uses biology, psychology and philosophy to show how meditation can lead to a spiritual life in a secular age.

You might not know that evolutionary psychology is a field of study. Wright combines it with neuroscience to show why he believes Buddhism is true, and how it can free us of delusions and save us from ourselves, as individuals and as a species.

In a earlier book, The Moral Animal, he wrote about how evolution shaped the human brain. Our mind is designed to sometimes delude us about ourselves and about the world in order to survive. Unfortunately, this leads to much unhappiness.

Some of this comes from natural selection which he says makes animals in general “recurrently dissatisfied.” It leads us to anxiety, depression, anger, and greed. Wright believes Buddhism was a kind of answer to natural selection.

If human suffering is a result of not seeing the world clearly, meditation can clarify that seeing and so will make us better, happier people.

I was first introduced to his new book through an interview with him on Fresh Air. Host Terry Gross asked Wright about how natural selection is at odds with the Buddhist notion that pleasure is fleeting:

“This was in the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment is that a big source of our suffering is that we crave things, we want things, but then the gratification tends not to last. So we find ourselves in a state of almost perennial dissatisfaction. And, in fact, people may have heard that Buddhism says that life is full of suffering, and it’s true that suffering is the translation of the word dukkha. It’s a respectable translation, but a lot of people think that that word would be just as well translated as “unsatisfactoryness.”

Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.

If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you’d feel blissed out, you’d never eat again. You’d have sex, you’d, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that’s not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it’s central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.”

An earlier book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, was what get me thinking a lot more about mindfulness.  He worked to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society and was the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

The practice of “mindfulness” is a more than 2000-year-old Buddhist method of living fully in the present, observing ourselves, our feeling, others and our surroundings without judging them.

I read his book Wherever You Go There You Are when it wa first published during a time when I was more into formal study of Zen and meditation.

I liked that it treated meditation as a natural activity that can be practiced anytime and anywhere. No joining a group, no props or special cushions.

Mindfulness and living in the moment can be improved with techniques such as “non-doing” and concentration.

Like defining Buddhism, these terms are simple but complex. Non-doing is very different from doing nothing. We live very much in a “doer” culture, and in such a place non-doing is a big change. Sitting down to meditate, even for a short time, is a time for non-doing, but it means you will be “working” at consciousness and intention. Anyone who has ever tried to “empty their mind” knows how very difficult that can be.

There are several chapters in the book on parenting as a form of meditation – and children as “live-in Zen masters.”

I think Kabat-Zinn would agree with Wright on how Buddhist meditation can counteract the biological pull we have toward dissatisfaction:

What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level. … By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that’s just our nature. Buddhism diagnosed this as kind of a problem and remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That’s an amazing thing — that it can work.


More

Listen to the interview with Wright on npr.org

Read “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t” by Adam Gopnik – The New Yorker

Visitors to Paradelle

  • 386,531

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,297 other followers

Follow Weekends in Paradelle on WordPress.com

Archives

I Recently Tweeted…

Tweets from Poets Online

Recent Photos on Flickr

%d bloggers like this: