Category Archives: mindfulness and meditation

More on Mindfulness: It’s Hard to be a Kid, Plus a Meditation Primer

Whoever said being a kid was easy doesn’t remember being a kid.

Seriously, y’all, I had a great childhood.  Not normal, by any stretch, but fairly carefree.  But you couldn’t pay me to be ten years old again.

aww

Yep, I went there.

Before I came to Georgia, I taught preschool.  It scares me a little to think of becoming a mother, because I can’t imagine loving anyone more than I loved my little hellions.  I tried hard to never scoff at their “problems,” no matter how tiny.  Being a kid is hard work.  You’re learning new things all the time.  You get thrown into situations you don’t understand.  You’re not yet equipped with all the tools you need to deal with things.  In short, it’s just plain scary.

When I was little, around eight years old or so, I began to have trouble sleeping.  I would find myself fretting about things.  (What kinds of things?  Kid things, I’m sure.  I don’t remember specifics, but they kept me up at night, so that is all that matters.)  I wanted to keep my mind from racing.  I wanted to be at peace, to get some rest.  So I “invented” a technique to help myself get to sleep.

I pictured myself in a plain white room.  No floors, no walls, no ceiling, just a white void.  A little like Mike Teavee, now that I think about it, but disappointingly lacking in Oompa Loompas.

Every time my mind would begin to wander, I would catch myself and bring myself back into that empty white room.  It was calming and effective.  I used this technique for years to help myself get to sleep when I was stressed.

I didn’t know it then, but I was basically engaging in a rudimentary form of metacognition.  In other words, I was “kid meditating.”

If eight-year-old me can do it, than anyone can do it.

So here is your first meditation exercise.  We’re going to start with the basics.

First, your position.  You might want to sit in a chair, or your bed, or the couch.  I just prefer to sit on the floor in a lotus or “Indian style” position.  (As an aside, I learned teaching preschool that nobody sits “Indian style” anymore.  They sit “criss-cross-applesauce,” which is less offensive and more fun to say.)  However you sit, make sure your spine is straight, your shoulders are back, and that you are in a position that will be comfortable for a while.

Closing your eyes is okay, but if it makes you sleepy, don’t.  We’re not 8-year-old me; we want tranquil, not zonked out.  It’s often best to stare at the floor or wall, focusing on a point about 10 feet beyond or behind the floor.

Unless you want to be STRUCK by inspiration!

Even if stock photo girl thinks it's a good idea, please do not meditate in the street.

Time for the “meat” of your meditation: breathing.

We take what we put into our bodies so seriously.  Smoking is stigmatized, and so is high fructose corn syrup.  Diet guides are everywhere.  People obsess over getting 8 glasses of water a day (well, some people).  But if I cut off your food, your water, or your air… which would kill you first?

Take time to fully inhale.  Exhale.  And again.  We’re talking deep, soul-cleansing belly breaths here.  When you’re stressed, your breathing often becomes shallow, rushed.  Focus on your breathing, and imagine you’re nourishing your body with the oxygen filling your chest.  In and out, rhythmically.

At this point, you can pick a word to meditate on with each breath if you wish.  Many people take comfort in a soothing or prayerful word, like “love” or “Jesus.”  You can even use the sacred syllable “om” if you want to be more traditional about it.  If the idea of repeating a word is too Zen for you, you might just want to picture yourself in my plain white room, or an idyllic place of your choice.

That’s pretty much all there is to it, but the hard part isn’t over yet.

You are training your brain here, and it’s not going to like it.  Everyone in the world has a little ADD.  Whenever you catch your mind wandering from your meditation, don’t beat yourself up.  Take note of what you were thinking about, dismiss it, then return to your focus and your breathing.  This is how my entire meditation usually goes.  Distract, return.  Distract, return.

If you begin to make note of your thoughts in this way, you will begin to notice your thinking change.  I have always been a pessimistic person, but I am learning to rein it in by realizing how often negative thoughts dominate my mind.   I worry about things about which I have absolutely no business worrying.  But just catching myself worrying is often enough to chasten me into changing my attitude about my situation.

I try to meditate for at least 15 minutes a day.  It’s really better to do it for longer, at least half an hour or even an hour if you can handle it.  Even if it seems like you are only sitting around, this is not a waste of time any more than exercise is.  When your mindfulness muscle begins to grow, the quality of your life will soar.  You will begin to notice your thought patterns and what you need to change to be the person you want to be.  You will stop wasting time with unproductive thoughts, so distractions will be far fewer.

Your brain is who you are.  Everything that makes you, well, you… is up in that noggin of yours.  Why not give it the exercise and attention it needs to flourish?

If nothing else, it will help you sleep better at night.

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Thanksliving: an Introduction to Mindfulness

Why is it so hard to count your blessings at Thanksgiving?

Gourd yourself.

One gourd per blessing, at least.

This is the time of year, they tell us, to truly appreciate what you have around you, and think about how grateful you are for everything you have.  Count your blessings- your family, your friends, your home, your health, the fact that unemployment is still in the single digits.  It’s nice to picture that Norman Rockwell holiday, life’s troubles suspended for just one day as everyone gathers lovingly around the turkey.

I have been to enough Thanksgiving dinners, mine and others’, to know that this does not happen.  Most people I know consider themselves lucky if they escape from their family gathering kids in tow, casserole dishes unbroken, relationships fully intact.

If you don’t get along with your family, it is especially hard to set aside feelings of isolation and be thankful at the peak of holiday stress.  If your health is poor, it is difficult to watch everyone around you enjoy themselves, free from pain or disease, and be happy for them instead of envious.  If you have little (or no) income, watching your friends and family exchange expensive presents can make you feel guilty, or worse, jealous.

Nobody’s life is immune to ups and downs, and our brains are wired to respond to those.  It’s hard to avoid being yanked along on that emotional roller coaster.  You’re riding high on praise from your boss one day, the next you’re rear-ended by some schlub with no insurance.

You can’t control your family, your boss, or idiot teenage drivers.  The only thing in your life you can control is you.  That’s the mantra of my mission.  Your mind probably has some pretty bad habits.  You’re never going to get into the holiday spirit one day of the year when you don’t have the holiday spirit the other 364.

Mindfulness, a secular practice with roots in and connections to almost every major religion, can change that.

Are you serious?

Close friends of mine know how obsessed I am with situational awareness.  The zombie apocalypse will spare no one, and I aim to be sure my nearest and dearest are ready for when life attacks.  Many people think I am insane because of this, and they are probably right.

But I believe I’m even more right when it looks like everyone around me is walking around blind.  In January 2005, the University of Illinois published this terrifying study where most commercial airline pilots landed directly on top of another plane during a simulation… simply because they were not expecting it to be there.

You may have previously seen this famous selective attention test from 1999.  If not, I encourage you to watch it, as silly and dated as it may be, just so you know where I’m going with this.

If situational awareness is noticing the gorilla on the basketball court while counting shots, then mindfulness is noticing the gorilla, the basketball,the players, the jerseys, the shots, the court, right down to the players’ shoes.

But what does a gorilla have to do with Thanksgiving?

I’m not going to tell you that meditation was the solution to all my problems.  I still have traffic jams, fights with my parents, and even occasional Paper Chase moments that make me want to curl up and die right there in class.

But ever since I began practicing mindfulness, I have found my quality of life has improved so dramatically, I want to share the practice with anyone who might benefit from it.  (Full disclosure: I truly believe that everyone could benefit from it.)  Because, and allow me to repeat, the only thing you can control is you.

You know that saying that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it?  I believe it’s more like 100% how you react.  I know some people who don’t even notice the 10% of life that is happening to them because they are so hung up on something that happened years ago, or something that will happen in the distant future.

Mindfulness pulls us out of the stress and worry and confusion of our minds, and into the present.  If you want to get serious about counting your blessings on Thanksgiving, then you have to notice your blessings first.

Most of us walk around on autopilot, doing the things we need to do (or the things we think we need to do) to be successful: studying for class, going to work, getting the oil changed, eating lunch, grocery shopping, going to the bank.  The whole time, we think about the next thing on the to-do list.  What we need to do tomorrow.

Ugly or beautiful, when is the last time you really looked at your bank?  The walls, the molding, the windows?

When is the last time you really enjoyed your food?  Savored it, chewed it?  Without reading, texting, or spending the whole time chatting with the person next to you?

To wrap up….

Next week, I’ll be posting a primer on meditation and some mindfulness exercises to try.  Until then, do me a favor.

Attempt to eat at least one meal a day mindfully.  Chew your food completely and savor it.  Enjoy the textures, smell the aromas, ponder each ingredient- how it got to your table, how it works in harmony with the others to create a pleasurable eating experience.  While you’re at it, say a prayer of thanks for your taste buds and that you can eat with a knife and fork instead of through a tube.  If you truly feel that you have nothing else to give thanks for this year, you will at least enjoy your turkey and dressing.

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