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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

School drops mindfulness training

Photo by the Akron Beacon Journal
I've written several posts about mindfulness meditation being used in schools to help students improve their focus and ease stress.

One described a study in the journal Psychological Science that found that students who had mindfulness training did better on the English portion of the GRE (graduate school entrance exams) than those who didn't have it. Another was about schools in the United Kingdom that are teaching mindfulness meditation to help students deal with stress, like test anxiety.

Now there's a story about a school in Ohio that's dropping its mindfulness instruction due to parents' objections.
The Plain district piloted mindfulness at Warstler in 2011 and was so pleased with the results it started the practice in its other elementary schools in 2012 and planned to expand it to the district’s other schools this year. Mindfulness involves using techniques like “belly breaths” and “mindful movements” to improve students’ focus and help them better cope with their emotions.
Some parents complained about the Buddhist roots of the practices -- the day started with a Tibetan bell being rung -- and others objected to taking time away from academic subjects.

“They were taking valuable time away from education to put students in a room of darkness to lay on their backs. I just didn’t see it happening,” one parent said.

The school's principal had praised the program in December, crediting it with helping to boost the school’s performance index on the state report cards, a measure that had been stagnant for several years in the ’90s before jumping to 105.9. “I can’t imaging running a school without it,” she said at the time, the Akron Beacon-Journal reported.

photo by the Akron Beacon-Journal via Ohio.com
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, author of "A Mindful Nation" and a meditator, had visited the school and was pleased the school had adopted mindfulness.

“It is a shame that a program that successfully taught children how to discipline their minds and control their emotions is being taken out of the school,” he said in a written statement. “This approach is being used by the United States Marine Corps, and corporations like Google, Target, and General Mills. It is also recommended for wellness by respected institutions like the Cleveland Clinic.”

Ryan said getting children to “focus in a world of distraction” is one of the biggest challenges parents face. “This program is exactly what children need today,” he said. “I hope the school district will reconsider.”

Real life experiment: Music soothes anxiety

An orthopedic surgeon in Britain teamed up with musician Brian Eno to create a "quiet room" at a hospital where Eno's ambient music plays, The Guardian reports. Eno, who experiments with what he calls "functional music" -- or music designed to elicit a particular response -- was delighted.

Surgeon Robin Turner approached Eno after going to see the artist's audiovisual installation 77 Million Paintings at the 2010 Brighton festival. His mother-in-law also went, said Turner, and "she is normally very fidgety, you can't pin her down; the phrase we use is that she goes at a million miles an hour with her hair on fire. She went in and was there for two hours, which is unheard of. It was proof that this has a calming influence on people."


Eno says this is the first time he's been able to practice his belief that music can be made that deliberately affects mood. "I've met many women who have had children listening to one of my records so I knew there was this dimension and here, in the last couple of days I've met patients and staff who have said, 'I really like that room, it makes a big difference."

Turner said they intended to examine any physiological changes to people in the Eno room – pulse, blood pressure, anxiety and so on – and there was anecdotal evidence this week when a cancer patient came out and began telling Eno, not recognising him, how wonderful it was. "He wanted a copy of that room at home," said Turner. "The scientist in me says that's not very scientific but the human in me says that makes it all worthwhile."

In addition to his own albums and ones with David Byrne, Eno offers a series of ambient music, including Ambient Music for Airports. Photo from The Guardian of Eno preparing the Brighton exhibit.


Walk like a scientist -- with mindfulness

In this blog post from NPR, Adam Frank recommends using scientific methods to get in touch with the present moment.

Like meditators, scientists practice noticing, Frank says. "This is where it begins, with simple act of catching seeing the smallest detail as an opening to a wider world of wonder and awe," he says. Noticing can overcome our habit of walking around lost in thought, not seeing where we are "by binding us to experience in ways that are thrilling, even in their ordinariness."

And, he says, you don't need expensive microscopes or a particle accelerator in your basement to practice noticing. (You knew that, didn't you, since you're reading a meditation blog.) Frank recommends you take a walk in the woods and gives helpful directions:


How many trees are there on the sides of a steep hill compared with its crest? How many leaves are there on the stalks of the blue flowers compared to the yellow ones? How many different kinds of birdsong do you hear when you stop and listen, (by the way, this requires really stopping and really listening, which is awesome). Counting things forces you to pay attention to subtleties in the landscape, the plants, the critters.
Other things scientists love: shapes, colors, patterns. Do the rocks at the stream's edge look different from the ones near the trail? Do the big cattails have the same color as the small ones? Get your naturalist on and bring a notebook. Pretend you are or John Muir. Jot down your findings, make little drawings and always, always ask your yourself those basic questions: why, how, when?
You don't need the answers. As the poet Rilke once said, "Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language." Questions raise our pulse and sharpen our delight.



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Doctors prescribe meditation

The Wall Street Journal reports that doctors increasingly are prescribing meditation for a variety of conditions.
At Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, doctor’s orders can include an unlikely prescription: meditation.
“I recommend five minutes, twice a day, and then gradually increase,” said Aditi Nerurkar, a primary-care doctor and assistant medical director of the Cheng & Tsui Center for Integrative Care, which offers alternative medical treatment at the Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospital. “It’s basically the same way I prescribe medicine. I don’t start you on a high dose right away.” She recommends that patients eventually work up to about 20 minutes of meditating, twice a day, for conditions including insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome.
Integrative medicine programs including meditation are increasingly showing up at hospitals and clinics across the country. Recent research has found that meditation can lower blood pressure and help patients with chronic illness cope with pain and depression. In a study published last year, meditation sharply reduced the risk of heart attack or stroke among a group of African-Americans with heart disease.
Meditation is seen as complementary to traditional medicine, not a substitute for it, the article says. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Feel what you feel. Know what you know

When something happens, like the explosions at the Boston Marathon today, it's hard to know how to react. And while this my sound counter-intuitive or self-centered, I think the best way to work with it is to be with your own reaction. (This assumes you're not in the immediate vicinity and there's no action you can take to help.)

When you allow space for your own reaction, it naturally leads to compassion. Being present with what's happening for you with kindness expands your heart, which makes room for others. 

Feel what you feel, without naming it or judging it or explaining it or justifying it. Feel it. And know what you know.

"Anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness mark the in-between state. It's the kind of place we usually want to avoid. The challenge is to stay in the middle rather than buy into struggle and complaint. The challenge is to let it soften us rather than make us more rigid and afraid. Becoming intimate with the queasy feeling of being in the middle of nowhere makes our hearts more tender. When we are brave enough to stay in the middle, compassion arises spontaneously. By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what's happening, we begin to access our inner strength.

Yet it seems reasonable to want some kind of relief. If we can make the situation right or wrong, if we can pin it down that way, then we are on familiar ground....But staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it. This open-ended tender place is called bodhicitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance. It's how the warrior learns to love."

~Pema Chödrön

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Meditators are nicer

People meditate for lots of reasons -- to reach enlightenment, to lower their blood pressure, reduce anxiety, relieve stress. Most don't sit in order to be nicer to others, but a new study shows that meditation can have that effect.

A team of researchers at Northeastern University recruited 36 people who said they were interested in meditation. Half, the control group, were told they were on a wait list. The other half were given eight weeks of meditation instruction, with half of that group also involved in discussions of Buddhist teachings on compassion and sufferings.

To test the effects, subjects were told to come to an office; the waiting room had three chairs, two occupied by actors involved in the experiment. The subject naturally took the third chair, and another actor -- on crutches and with a look of pain -- came in.

The study found that about 15 per­cent of the non-meditators – the wait-­listed group – got up and offered their seat to the suf­ferer com­pared to about 50 per­cent of those in both med­i­ta­tion groups – those who engaged in dis­cus­sions about com­pas­sion and those who only par­tic­i­pated in med­i­ta­tion training. The results sug­gest that it was the med­i­ta­tion itself — not the discussions — that accounted for the increase.
The research team is now looking at why meditators were more likely to give up their seats.It could be related to a height­ened aware­ness of one’s sur­round­ings or an increased sense of empathy, they speculate.
“This is the first evi­dence that the prac­tice of meditation—even for brief periods of time—increases peo­ples’ respon­sive­ness and moti­va­tion to relieve the suf­fering of others,” psychology professor David DeSteno said.