Walking the Walk

So here I am, back to the blog after a full calendar year, ready to reflect on the wonder of walking wordlessly a while for wellness, without wasting energy worrying about WordPress work (Ha!).

I have always loved language.  Reading and writing have been passions of mine for as long as I can remember, enabling me to feel a connection with my fellow humans through linguistic expression.  This is why I felt that blogging about my ideas regarding mindful living, seemed like a real no-brainer. I could marry two of my passions in a purposeful way and foster a connection with like-minded folks from near and far!

What I learned, however, is that when you write for an audience, or (I hate to admit this one) profit, purpose can become skewed.  Mindfulness is replaced by stress and ego pushes out authenticity. In my quest to learn from and connect with other spiritual seekers, I have come across a handful of mindfulness “professionals” and “teachers” who knew the jargon, could name the gurus, and list the retreats, but who were completely stressed out multitaskers riddled with worry and expectation.

During a year away from writing for and attempting to monetize my blog I learned a few things…

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Lesson One  

The most enlightened, mindful people rarely, if ever, talk about enlightenment and mindfulness.  They are people who walk the walk without talking… at all. A friend told me that we are all monkeys and monkey see, monkey do.  Just be sure to choose the right monkey to follow! I’m following the folks I see stopping in front of gardens on their way to work so they can literally stop and smell the roses; the ones who give small children their rapt attention when they are speaking without correcting, giggling, or dismissing; the people who make eye contact, smile, and nod when passing people outside; the people on trains who look out the window as opposed to scrolling through nonsense on their phones.  These are the folks who are truly appreciating life, moment to precious moment.

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Lesson Two

We can not underestimate the restorative power of being in nature.  Schools need to realize this. Workplaces need to realize this. EVERYONE needs to realize this.  

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Lesson Three

Personalized practice matters.  How you choose to live your best life and become your best self is entirely personal.  I’ve met people who are so preoccupied with the details of meditation, from purchasing the right cushions to sit on, the right music, the right app, even the right incense to align the right type of energy, that the most important part of the practice gets lost.  It’s tough to be mindful with a mind full of meditation merch. For me personally, a mindful walk outdoors is a cure-all during which I can effectively connect with self and source in the present moment.

Now if something in this post struck a chord with you, kindly repost, link, share, like, tweet, and comment so I may maximize traffic to my site!  (Lesson Four – Humor is the spice of life! 🙂

Tech Addiction and Digital Well-being

The other day we finally had a glimpse of beautiful, spring weather.  I literally pried the Xbox remotes from my sons’ hands and shoved my boys through the front door to go play with their neighborhood friends outside.  In addition to recognizing their dire need for a dose of vitamin D, my concern about their overall well-being, particularly a need to unplug from electronics, moved my hand to lock the door behind them!  After changing into shorts and sneakers, I headed out myself for a jog. Twenty minutes later, a few doors down, I jogged past my sons and their friends sitting on the grass in the shade of a tree… STARING AT THEIR PHONES!

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For a while now, a big topic of conversation has been the pros and cons of technology as it has come to shape the lives of kids today.  As a school librarian, experiencing the shift from “book lady” to “digital turnkey,” I have experienced how my newer role in the lives of my students has shifted as well.  I have witnessed firsthand the profound benefits of access to diverse and reliable information in an instant, the breaking of boundaries through long-distance communication and seamless digital collaboration, and the realization of visions and dreams through access to cutting-edge technologies.  Sadly though (devastating, actually), is the subsequent “brain hijacking” that can result from over-reliance and escapism through tech. I must confess that I, myself have been among the afflicted. Many a night I have found myself scrolling through nonsense while a half-read novel sat unopened on my nightstand.

At Google’s Annual Developer Conference, Google I/O, this past month, an interesting thing happened revealing an interesting shift in perspective on the part of those responsible for hijacking our brains.  

Sameer Samat, Google’s VP for Android and Google Play, gave a firsthand account of the surprising relief he experienced when compelled to surrender his phone on a vacation.  His story was a prelude to the unveiling of a collection of new features falling under the category, “digital well-being.” Placing your phone face-down will activate “Shush” mode so you will not hear alerts. You can also track your usage and even place limits on time-sucking applications.   

In addition to special features such as the ones Android has introduced, there has been a surge in new apps targeted toward users seeking a little zen.  During the Google Play Award Ceremony, one of the winning apps was Simple Habit Meditation app, founded by Yunha-Kim. The app contains guided meditations for a host of life situations ranging from “Calm Nerves” to “Breaking Up.”  The app also has meditation timers, reminders and a calendar to track progress. It is just one of a number of apps offering similar features.

As exciting as these new considerations for the tech user are, I firmly believe that the only real way to foster well being is to teach kids to do just that… to “be,” WITHOUT the distraction of any device. The first solution to ANY problem, however, is awareness. Tech companies earnestly acknowledging “digital wellness” is a step in the right direction.

Alas… when I think of brain hijacking and digital wellness, I think back to Hurricane Sandy which decimated much of Long Island.  Although my home did not endure major damage, there was the upheaval of two solid weeks without power in my development. My sons did not yet have cell phones.  It wasn’t fun all the time for certain, but there was something magical about watching my kids fill the place with origami cranes and boats and tripping over board game pieces that got away.  Lego projects resurfaced. We had longer conversations with the neighbors than we had had in all the years I had lived there as people came outside in search of human contact because they lost the digital distraction that was TV.  In short, I loved observing my children and neighbors being mindful and PRESENT.

Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes From Inspirational Folks, by Gavin Aung Than

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As any teacher can attest, it is often infinitely easier to manage and “teach” our students than it is to teach our family and friends.  In my home, this is no exception. I have not-so-inconspicuously left books about mindfulness around my house so that my clan might pick them up and instantaneously become enlightened, and well,… no such luck.  This is until I brought home Zen Pencils.  With its graphic format, I successfully conned them into thinking this book was NOT a book of inspirational quotes and anecdotes like the ones that adorn every wall in our home, much to their chagrin. As the blurb on the back cover promises, this book will “inspire and motivate even the most cynical of readers.”  Truth.

The compilation of text here is impressive in and of itself.  We have an eclectic collection of words of wisdom from the likes of the enlightened Confucius, to historical phenoms like Theodore Roosevelt and Marie Curie, to literary geniuses like Neil Gaiman and Jack London.  The book even contains an awesome comic titled, “Who’s the Crazier Man” by controversial performer Henry Rollins which begs the reader to question what it means to BE “at all times.”

Gavin Aung Than’s illustrations, which vary in style from simplistic to realistic, and vibrant, contrasting color to analogous color pallets, serve a purpose greater than that of grabbing the attention of the reluctant reader.  They are designed to push your thinking about the text to another level. (Fans of Zen Pencils can browse through more of Than’s art on his site, zenpencils.com) My personal favorite comic in the book that illustrates this is The Most Astounding Fact, by Neil deGrasse Tyson for which Than artfully depicts the universe in the eye of a newborn child.

Question:  How do you engage cynics in timeless and universal lessons about mindfulness, perseverance, courage, confidence, sacrifice, and dignity?

Answer:  Give them Zen Pencils: Cartoon Quotes From Inspirational Folks.

Here is a book that this librarian will NOT hesitate to buy for my friends for Christmas.  They will actually read it!

Let It Go…

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Mindfulness is about paying attention.  Sometimes, however, when I think about mindfulness I sometimes get caught up in thinking about about it as a state of being that has to be grasped or “attained.”  Even though the practices of meditation and mindfulness require practice, what I need to remember is that the mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits of mindfulness come from a conscious effort that isn’t reaching or grasping, it is simply LETTING GO…

Things To Let Go Of

Attachments

Attachments lead to yearning and emptiness due to the perception that there is a void needing to be filled.  If you fixate on something you do not have, your mind forms the assumption that something is missing, when in fact, you have all that you need.  That car, that job, whatever it is your neighbor has… Our Western society perpetuates a sense of entitlement. Even the perception that one needs to be part of a traditional family structure in order to be “complete”;  In reality, the only one thing we do need is other people in the form of meaningful relationships of any kind.

The Past

Clearly, holding on to guilt and resentments hurts us.  Although our foibles are our greatest teachers, there is a difference between remembering what is done, and continuing to linger in the feelings of what is done.  This applies to the positives as well.  I think of the people who dwell in the glory days of their youth.  Reminiscing is fine and good and shared experiences can create and maintain bonds between people but living in that time robs you of creating new beautiful experiences.  Who wants to find themselves saying, look at all the fun we had looking back at us looking back at us looking back?

Ill Feelings Toward Others

Anger.  Resentment.  Jealousy. I like to think of the Buddha quote, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”  Harboring any sort of ill feelings toward others robs you of your own joy. And note: what others think of YOU is none of your business. Those who matter don’t judge, and those who judge don’t matter.  Just do you…

Gratitude Is The Solution

We must always employ mindful awareness to see the beauty in the things that are right in front of us.  Always. And there is ALWAYS something beautiful to see. If we can truly appreciate even the smallest blessings in our lives, even when there is the pain of tragedy and loss, we can enjoy peace and serenity through mindfulness.  

Let’s sum up with an analogy.  If you think about your life and the passage of time as a river, you don’t want to swim against the current, because you will exhaust yourself and get nowhere. If you grab hold of a fast moving boat, you will exhaust yourself with holding on and miss valuable ports along the way.  If you let go and float, the current will carry you and you will save your valuable energy.  Let it go…

Loving-kindness…

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It is February, the month that many associate with hearts, chocolates, sappy cards, bouquets, and other symbols of “love.”  When I was a child, February was the month that my dear ol’ dad used to buy my sister and I Whitman’s Samplers for St. Valentine’s Day which we savored.  As I got older, February was alternately a giddy or depressing month based on my current romantic status (During my teens, this was usually bleak!). Through latter years, with the hustle and bustle of career and family life, I gradually lost all interest in February, save for the beloved “mid-winter recess” from school that New York teachers and students enjoy!

This year, however, the month of February, with Valentine’s Day smack in the middle, I will be thinking about loving-kindness.  Loving-kindness, or Meta Prayer, as it is known in Buddhism, is a mindfulness practice that has benefits extending far beyond stress reduction or relaxation.  “Extending far beyond” is in fact a key component of this type of meditative practice and the attention focuses first on self, and then farther and farther outward to all of mankind.

It Begins With Self

Mindfulness expert, Shauna Shapiro, delivered an excellent TEDx Talk (The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger) during which she illustrates that mindfulness is not just paying attention, but paying attention with kind curiosity.  To love yourself, you can’t be judgmental.  This is the part of the loving-kindness meditation that develops our sense of SELF-COMPASSION.  When I dug a bit deeper into the meaning of self compassion, I learned that it differs from self-absorption, and selfishness.   Self-compassion isn’t about putting myself first, or placing myself on a pedestal looking down at others.  Instead, it is about fully accepting myself as I am and recognizing that I am worthy of all the wonderful things this life has to offer.

It Moves Out Toward Loved Ones

This, for me, is the easiest part of practicing loving-kindness.  Most all of us, at least those with the capacity for compassion, inherently wish the best for the people we genuinely love and care about, and consequently, suffer when they do.  What makes this part of the practice special is that we are consciously sending well wishes out to the universe in their favor.  In other faiths, including the Christianity in which I was loosely raised, we are encouraged to pray for loved ones and come to believe that God can grant our wishes.  As a Reiki practitioner, I definitely feel that channeling energy and sending forth a healing intention toward another can yield real healing during a planned session.  When I send favorable thoughts to loved ones during regular loving-kindness meditations, for me, the greatest benefit is GRATITUDE.  I remember to be thankful for these people in my life.

Toward Those Who Inhabit Our Daily Landscape

The Starbucks barista who prepares my morning coffee.  The main office secretary who manages the sign in sheets at work.  The lady who mans the security gate of my development.  The neighbor who sings out loud while she jogs each morning.  These are the people in my life to whom I feel relatively neutral.  And they are precisely the people I tend to take for granted.  Since our contact is limited, I tend to discredit the impact a kind word from any one of them could impact the course of my day.  Conversely, a warm smile or a simple compliment from me can start a chain reaction of good in their world.  Remembering to send energy to these individuals in my loving-kindness practice heightens my AWARENESS of the far-reaching effects of every single person we encounter every day.

Toward Those Who Raise Conflict

Here comes the challenge, and honestly, the reason the loving-kindness meditation is important for all people to practice.  When we think about those who raise conflict in our lives we need to remember that there are two types of conflict; internal and external.  The latter has never been a tremendous issue for me.  For the most part, I tend to play nice with others.   Internal conflict, however is something I grapple with on a daily basis.  They are people who make me jealous, impatient, intolerant, sad, and angry, and even though these emotions may not lead to an altercation, they cause suffering in my soul. I love the quote about hate being like holding on to a hot coal with the intention of throwing it.  I am the only one who gets burned.   By consciously projecting love and light toward those who cause conflict in my life, I cultivate FORGIVENESS, and more importantly, TOLERANCE.

Finally, Toward All

This, final part of my loving-kindness meditation feels me with a profound sense of CONNECTEDNESS.  I extend well wishes to all of the people in all of the world: people who live different lives but share the basic characteristics that make me human.  No matter how alone or isolated I feel, I am reminded that I am in fact part of something much larger and more powerful than Jen.

The loving-kindness meditation, as I have come to practice it, enables me to acknowledge my own feelings with kindness and to cultivate more of the good stuff…  forgiveness, identification/empathy, connection, self-compassion, selflessness, gratitude, and love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!  

Mindfulness: Actualized In My Library

After a long, restful, mindful holiday with my family, I am finally back to my blog! It just feels like the perfect time to reflect on my progress so far this past year implementing mindfulness in my library. As readers may know from my previous posts, my interest in mindfulness began as a personal quest for stress reduction and the Buddha-like serenity I saw so cleverly depicted on the faces of models in yoga and meditation magazines. Through personal practice I have slowly begun to achieve these and more… better sleep, better health, more compassion, and a deep, grateful appreciation for all that surrounds me. Although life isn’t perfect, and I still experience negative emotions from time to time (I am human after all), through regular meditation and mindful living practices, I bounce back quicker and feel a significant “shift” overall.

In my quest to spread the benefits of formal mindful practice and mindful living to the students in my school, I have taken a number of avenues. As part of my long-term plan to make mindfulness an inherent part of the learning and growing experience at my middle school, I have begun to implement “phase one” which is to familiarize all students, faculty, and administrators with the concept, and to provide opportunities for both organized and informal practice. Thankfully, I have been lucky to gain the support of both parents and administrators in this endeavor.

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Mindful Spaces:
First, came the creation of “meditation stations.” At each windowsill in my library, there is a bench. For years I have toyed with the idea of getting them upholstered, but it was difficult to justify the cost. This year, I applied for, and received, a mini-grant from our PTA for meditation cushions that can move from the window areas to the floor for guided meditation sessions as needed. Very cozy and so very hygge!

On the walls of these window nooks, I posted colorful QR codes leading to soothing meditation music. Our students have been issued their own Chromebooks this year which they can use to scan them. Pop in earbuds, and welcome serenity! In baskets, I have also placed coloring sheets, colored pencils, and scrap paper on which they can doodle or journal.

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Picture books, which we have often used as a fun way to teach complex ideas (think The Day the Crayons Quit to teach about unions) can be found here as well. Books such as Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, and Master of Mindfulness: How to Be Your Own Superhero in Times of Stress are two of my personal favorites. In addition to inducing calm and mindfulness through the sheer beauty and simplicity of the the drawings, they provide clear, tangible definitions of mindfulness, and in some cases, simple strategies for practice.

Students are free to use these “mediation stations” during recess at lunch, after school, and during class with a teacher’s permission. Administrators have begun to use the spaces as a “time out” for students. A comfortable, soothing, place where students can take a moment to just breathe and be present with themselves affords them the opportunity to identify and accept their thoughts and emotions and recognize how they may be affected physically by them. They can then pause to think through their next actions. This has proven very effective at calming an angry or distressed student. The teachers have been made aware of these spaces and increasingly take advantage for their students who need it.

Collection Development:
When I was getting my masters degree in Library and Information Science I clearly remember the unit dedicated to bibliotherapy; reading text to promote mental wellness and foster an understanding of self.  Books containing characters who break poor patterns of thinking and behavior through reflection and mindfulness, along with the latest nonfiction devoted to mindful living, yoga, and meditation, provide a treasure trove for stressed children and teens who may feel they are suffering alone. I have devoted a special section of our library to texts on these topics, along with some eye-catching signage, to promote circulation. It’s working!

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Monday Morning Mindful Message:
It’s Monday morning and the homeroom bell rings. Students settle into their seats and brace for the upcoming week. Most are ready, but some… not so much. Anxiety plagues many, and what better time for inspirational words of encouragement and the promotion of a mindful attitude than the Monday morning announcements? Each Monday I read such a quote over the PA system. On a few occasions, I have followed this up by posting a QR code in the library leading to a Padlet (https://padlet.com) on which students and faculty can post a comment, reflection, graphic, or website related to the quote of the week.  I also email teachers a graphic like the one below so they can post it on their smartboards.

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Feel free to email me with questions or comments regarding mindfulness in school. The main purpose of my blog is to connect with like-minded people out there! And stay tuned for an articles on Mindfulness in the Makerspace, MINDcraft Club, and Mindfulness Professional Development.

Meditation Is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, by Whitney Stewart with pictures by Sally Rippin

This book is a complete gem.  Even though the intended audience is K through 3, I can see using this in my collection as an instruction manual for mindfulness for my middle schoolers (as well as their teachers!).  The strength of this book is the fact that it provides a variety of actual mindfulness practices for kids.  It can work as a daily guide.  Students can choose their methods based on their emotional needs at any given time.  The book describes activities such as, “Mind Drawing for Focus,” “Protection Circle for Security,” and “Friendship Meditation for Kindness.”  They are mostly visualization and breathing exercises.

Intrusive thoughts that “pop up” during meditation are likened to bubbles.  This instruction is to “pop” them when the mind wanders.  As a Reiki practitioner, energy work is a big part of my mindfulness practice and I love how this book alludes to chakras (energy centers in the body) and the importance of, and simple strategies for, sending and receiving energy.  For example, the “Wise Friend for Decision Making” exercise encourages one to envision a wise friend sending, “white light into your forehead to strengthen your body.”  The center of the eyes is the location of the Ajna Chakra, or “third eye chakra,” and it is the point for insight and intuition.  One instructed to then imagine receiving light over the throat for clear speech.  (This is the Vishuddha Chakra.)

The illustrations that accompany the text are simplistic and delightful.  The main subject is a cute elephant and his little friend (representative of the “wise friend” within) is a monkey.  The book concludes with “Questions about Meditation.”  Worded simply for a child, they are the same questions adults often have regarding the practice.  (“What do I do when I feel wriggly?” or “sore legs?”)  In short, this is a delightful little book, and a great addition to my mindful library.

The Lemonade Hurricane: A Story About Mindfulness and Meditation, by Licia Morelli

This adorable gem-of-a -picture-book is the perfect introduction to mindfulness and meditation for the littlest learners.  Beautiful, engaging artwork accompanies simple text in this book, providing for the perfect read aloud.  The book invites opportunities for valuable discussion through the experience of Emma and her little brother, Henry.  

Emma, a mindful little girl herself, often likes to stop and pause when the business of life becomes too much.  Her brother Henry, however, is what she describes as a “lemonade hurricane.”  Pictures in the book can be used to invite little listeners to discuss Henry’s positive, and sometimes negative behaviors (like knocking over Emma’s block castle).  She expresses her desire to be rid of the “hurricane” so she can enjoy her brother more.  By modeling simple mindfulness meditation techniques, Emma teaches Henry to be still.  In this state, he imagines himself seated peacefully on an elephant.  Here students could be asked where they would envision themselves to be peaceful.

A delightful author’s note at the end of the book provides a further discussion of the “lemonade hurricane” analogy. Thicht Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk, had in his youth likened a clear glass of apple juice in which the pulp had settled, to the clarity of the mind when settling into meditation.  The glass of lemonade, when the pulp is stirred by a “hurricane,” would become clear when still.  The final page of the book introduces mindful meditation exercises that can easily be practiced with a class of little ones, followed by questions for reflection such as, “How did sitting feel?”

Any young one with a little “lemonade hurricane” sibling is sure to relate, as will the child who him or herself struggles with sitting down to “just be.”