I recently tackled a new issue: how to get children to practice mindful activities (Mindful Games for Kids, 10 Aug 2017). In that post I said, “I can’t picture an 8 year-old sitting on a cushion, silently counting in- and out-breaths.” Now a post on the Trike Daily blog (A. Tzelnic, 2 Aug 2017), “Little Buddhas in the Classroom,” tells me that I may have underestimated the possibilities. Perhaps starting Chem 201 classes by putting away phones followed by 30 seconds of silence?
Disclaimer: the post describes 4th-6th graders so 10-12 year-olds?
Gary Snyder ’51 begins his essay, Just One Breath: The Practice of Poetry and Meditation (Tricycle, Fall 1991) with a straightforward teaching:
In this world of onrushing events the act of meditation — even just a “one-breath” meditation — straightening the back, clearing the mind for a moment — is a refreshing island in the stream.
What is this “meditation” that even one moment is good? Snyder says,
… it is a simple and plain activity. Attention: deliberate stillness and silence.
Whenever someone brings “mindfulness practice” into conversation with me, I naturally expect to hear stories about people struggling with “adult” problems like stress, overwork, focus/multitasking problems, emotional trauma, pain, grief, and addiction. I don’t expect to hear about the problems of 8-year-olds, not because I think they lack for problems, but because I can’t picture an 8 year-old sitting on a cushion, silently counting in- and out-breaths. They have trouble sitting still for a simple count-to-10, right?
In the last few years, however, I’ve discovered that there are ways for children to practice mindfulness, and there are real benefits to be had. As I suspected, the practices that are commonly recommended for adults (“sit down – be quiet”) require some major reworking for the elementary school audience, but there are ways to make a mindfulness connection at any age.
How to Help Your Kids Practice Mindfulness (Without Making them Sit Still) (Trike Daily, 5 Apr 2017) contains a bunch of useful insights about how to work with children (hint to aunts & uncles – the kids don’t have to be yours) as well as a link to Susan Kaiser Greenland‘s web site. Greenland, a parent, meditation teacher, and author, presents a number of practical ways to work with children, and even your inner child. Rolling my mouse over the icons on her site turned up headings like “watch,” “listen,” and “shout out,” each of which led to a set of practical suggestions and tips for mindful activities. Greenland has also packaged her materials as a book (Mindful Games) and a card deck of activities (Mindful Games Activity Cards) that might fit very nicely into a summer camp counselor’s backpack.
For the record, I haven’t found any form of meditation that espouses “No Pain, No Gain” as a tenet. Sitting still and silent may feel awkward. Sitting may even elicit some of the uncomfortable emotions and thoughts we commonly associate with pain, as in “I can’t take this anymore,” but the point of meditation is neither to produce pain, nor to use pain as a yardstick. On the other hand, pain is an unavoidable fact of life (I’m sure my birth caused my mother plenty of it), and aches and pains can serve a useful purpose (don’t put wait on that sprained ankle yet). So how should one relate to pain?
Long-time meditation teacher Ezra Bayda writes(“More than This Body,” Trike Daily, 26 July 2017)
Pain, by definition, kind of sucks. …
We usually try to simply get rid of it. Being cured of pain is the outcome our culture teaches us to expect — we carry a sense of entitlement that life should be free from pain. But one of the worst parts of the pain syndrome—whether the discomfort is short-term, as in meditation, or long-term, with chronic pain — is that our physical pain and our urge to nullify it feed off one another in a most unfortunate loop, and our life comes to revolve around our discomfort. …
It is essential to understand that both our pain and the suffering that arises from it are truly our path, our teacher, in that we can learn from them and experience our life more deeply as a result. …
When pain arises, instead of immediately thinking, “How can I get rid of this?” we can say “Hello” to it, and ask, “What can I learn from this?” It’s not always easy to do this, but when possible, it turns the whole experience upside down.”
Bayda’s article goes on with exploration of the different dimensions of pain, our responses to it, and a menu of tools for experiencing life-with-pain free of the mental hangups that normally present themselves.
Summer is when we Portlanders stash the raincoats, dig out the sunglasses and sneakers, and conquer! It’s exercise time. No more rainy excuses for being a couch potato. It’s time to swim, run, and bike, because that triathlon is just 4 weeks away and we need to be ready.
But exactly how do you reap the maximum payoff from strenuous exercise? According to a recent article in the Times, “To Train an Athlete, Add 12 Minutes of Meditation to the Daily Mix” (21 June 2017, Phys Ed), a new research study found that athletes who practiced meditation for a few minutes a day became “better able to withstand the mental demands of hours of strenuous physical training.”
So no more whining because that finish line isn’t coming any closer. Sit down for 12 minutes and meditate with me, and then go, go, GO!
I’ll be here when you’re finished.
It seems one cannot meditate without confronting one’s mind, thoughts, and experience. This may be sad news for some. Once, after asking visitors to my beginning meditation class to share what they hoped to get out meditation, one young woman looked away from all of us, and said in a low, urgent voice, “I want to stop thinking!”
I suspect that few of us would want to enter a thought-free state for all time, but the notion that meditation might offer a temporary refuge from thought, or at least, certain types of thought, is certainly appealing. So, naturally, we tell ourselves stories about how meditation will accomplish this for us: how sitting still, being quiet, and following the breath, will create a zone of mental peace and quiet.
One thing that I especially appreciate about Portland summers: the long summer evenings. There are just so many extra hours to our “days” during the summer. Which means that, after dinner, I can step out into the garden, or over to the sidewalk, and practice walking meditation.
If you’ve never tried walking meditation, it’s really quite simple. Walking mindfully is just like sitting mindfully: you open your mind to what is going on, note the coming and going of thoughts, and (here’s the new part), open your attention to the sensations of walking. One step after another – muscles tense and relax, each foot absorbs pressure and weight and then releases, perhaps a slight swaying from side to side.
Here are some posts and articles with extra hints:
The use of animal models as surrogates for humans in scientific experiments goes back centuries. If animals and humans aren’t that different, the thinking goes, we can learn about human biology by studying the biology of our mammalian relatives. According to “Of Mice and Mindfulness” (Reynolds, NY Times – Well, 18 May 2017), the animal model approach might even be used to learn how human brains respond to various mental states, including meditation.
Previous research on humans had revealed a positive correlation between meditation and the amount of white brain matter in a region of the human brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, a part of the brain involved in regulating emotions. Because humans lead such complicated lives, though, researchers could not say whether meditation caused this change in brain matter.
Enter the mouse.
“The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down” by Haemin Sunim has been a best-selling book in South Korea since it appeared in 2012 (41 weeks atop the best-sellers list, 3 million copies sold in 3 years). It has now appeared in an English translation by Chi-Young Kim (Penguin, 2017).
Here’s some advice from the book, Chapter 2 – Mindfulness (When You Are Feeling Low):
If you wish to clear away the clouds of your thoughts,
simply keep your mind in the present.
The clouds of thought linger only in the
past or the future.
Bring your mind to the present,
and your thoughts will rest.
Rather than repeating,
“It is awful! It is awful!”
stare straight into the awful feeling.
Examine the feeling.
Can you see its impermanent nature?
Let the feeling leave when it says it wants to go.
A few months ago I wrote about the virtues of 5 deep breaths (Reset with 5 Deep Breaths, 5 Mar 2017). Now I’m back with scientific news that shows breathing affects brain function in mice. To put it briefly, there are special brain cells that connect breathing with states of arousal: sleep-wakefulness, vigilance, and emotions.
“Breathing control center neurons that promote arousal in mice” (Yackle et al., Science, 31 Mar 2017, p. 1411) summarizes its findings as follows: