Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Coming Home

Nobody in Particular,

            I recently returned from the AP Reading in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I spent just over a week networking with fellow AP teachers and college professors from all over the nation. It was a worthwhile activity professionally speaking, but it was difficult to leave my wife behind and to miss this year’s graduation ceremony. And while I did learn a great deal about my AP course in particular and the city of Cincinnati in general, I was glad to come home. In fact, I think just about everyone feels this way, regardless of whether your time away is due to work or vacation. And no matter how much we may enjoy these journeys—even the best of vacations—we reach a point when we start to miss home and hear its siren song beckoning us back. There is something magical in that moment we reach home, too. As if anything that wasn’t right beforehand is suddenly corrected the second we cross the threshold. In that moment we’re immediately flooded with feelings of joyous relief and become grounded, like we’ve reached the shore for which we’ve searched for so long. Quite simply, coming home after a prolonged absence is one of the best feelings/moments in life.

            During my trip, I had the chance to read two excellent non-fiction books: Why Nations Fail and A Mindful Nation. And while I would love to tell you about the former (just read it!), the latter of the two tomes is the one that connects with today’s letter. A Mindful Nation is written by Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio’s 17th district. He’s been a member of the House of Representatives for nearly a decade and he’s one of the few politicians lately who’s had anything to say worth listening to. About 4 years ago, Congressman Ryan was invited to attend a retreat by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a doctor and professor at the UMASS Medical School; JKZ is also the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, also at UMASS’ med school. People from all over the country and from all walks of life were drawn to the retreat, which was effectively a conference on developing a routine “mindfulness” practice. Congressman Ryan left the retreat a week later a changed man and has been on a mission ever since to try and bring mindfulness mainstream.

            The three areas in which Congressman Ryan illustrates mindfulness practices and techniques would be most beneficial are education, health, and military. Before he gets into these specific areas, however, Congressman Ryan shares his own story and explains much of the vanguard research being done in the fields of neurology, psychology, cognitive science and how effective mindfulness can be to: reduce overall stress, improve /focus attention and working memory (science is discovering how these two are interrelated), improve memory recall, control emotional reactions, become more compassionate and happier over the long term, and just better well-being in general. After these chapters, he delineates how these practices could be used in education, healthcare, and for our military. While they were all fascinating in their own right (and had a great deal of potential crossover), I was most absorbed in the education chapter as this is precisely what drew me into my own meditation practice about three years ago. My final paper in a graduate class in the fall of 2009 was about how we could use meditative techniques to help students who have trouble with concentration. I shared this paper with my administration but it went no further; so, little by little, I’ve been trying to teach some of these ideas to my students. At the beginning of every class this past year, for instance, we’d begin by having about 1 minute of silence during which we all breathed deeply (essentially the same thing as “centering” at the beginning of a yoga class) and then the students immediately got busy on the bellwork assignment on the board. At the end of the year on my course evaluation, I’d say about 85% of the students said one of their favorite things about my class was “breathing,” that one minute when they could close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel safe—several even said it was the best part of their day.

            So remember all that business about coming home? It’s a wonderful feeling, right? Well, NIP, what would you say if I told you that you could experience that feeling—or at least the closest approximation—any given day, in as few as 20 minutes, no less? This is what a “mindfulness” practice can do for each and every single one of us. I know there are still people out there who shy away from “meditation” because for them it conjures up visions of esoteric monks sitting in a cave in silence. This could be why there has been such a shift away from the word meditation toward the word mindfulness. Whatever one chooses to call it, the truth is the practice is much simpler than our misconceptions imply. Just a week or so ago I read an article in which a Zen roshi was trying to explain how to meditate. Zen is known to be gruff and no frills, and his explain was spot on in this regard. He said it takes 3 steps: Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. That’s effectively all mindfulness is—paying attention. Whether you’re paying attention to your breath, to the sensations in the body, to the food you’re eating in that moment, to the steps you’re taking as you go for a walk…if you bring your entire mind to focus on that one, single thing, you’re practicing mindfulness. You don’t have to recite mantras, you don’t have to sit in complicated positions (I often sit in a regular chair for seated, or lie down on my yoga mat in savasana), you don’t really have to do anything other than just be. You might think, you might be tempted to look around (assuming you don’t have your eyes closed), and that’s okay. Just acknowledge your attention has gone adrift and simply guide it back to your intended focal point.

            I want to start a mindfulness revolution, NIP. I want to help Congressman Ryan bring this pragmatic, beneficial practice to the masses. Hopefully in the near future I’ll be able to pitch my idea to school officials or write a grant to see if we can start a pilot program in our district. I’m bursting with ideas and excitement, but I need people like you too, NIP. If you don’t have a mindfulness practice, please consider going to a class at your local Y, yoga studio, or any other place that offers lessons. In truth, you don’t need any of those places, though. You could simply read about it online or in some of my other letters and try it. Most of the recent research suggests that within 8 weeks of practicing for as little as 20 minutes per day people have noticeable reductions in stress levels and increased focus and working memory capacities. Our hectic, technological age is what’s doing this to us, mainly because we weren’t meant to handle so much information at one time. Giving our brains a break each day is not simply beneficial, but I believe will become critical with the passing of time. I’ve been practicing for nearly 3 years, and only in the last year or so have I bumped it up to twice a day (time permitting) and the results have been amazing. I feel like a different person…and so will you.

Begin a mindfulness practice today, NIP!

- Ryan

P.S. – In the interest of saving you some time, I’ve typed up a simple mindfulness practice based on breathing (for the most part, this is what I do every time) that was included in the back of Congressman Ryan’s A Mindful Nation:

- Settle into a steady and comfortable sitting posture (in a chair, on a cushion on the floor, etc). The back is relatively straight (not rigid), allowing breathing to be open and easy. Hands can be place on the thighs or resting loosely together on the lap. Head and neck are balanced. You may either close your eyes or just lower them with a soft gaze.

- Bring your awareness to the sensation of your body touching the chair or cushion, your feet touching the floor, the feeling of the air in the room.

- Gently bring awareness to the breath as it moves in and out.

- Notice where the breath is most vivid for you. This may be at the nostrils or at the chest as it rises and falls, or maybe right at the belly.

- You may become aware of the brief pause between the in-breath and the out-breath.

- Notice the rhythm of your breathing, and be aware of the sensations of the air coming into and filling your body, and then releasing itself and leaving your body.

- Stay present with the experience of breathing. Just allow yourself to breathe in a natural and comfortable way, riding the waves of the in-breath and out-breath.

- If your attention has wandered off the breath (and it will), gently escort it back to awareness of breathing. Allow thoughts or emotions to arise without pushing them away or holding on to them. Simply observe them with a very light and gentle curiosity. No need to get carried away by them, or to judge or interpret them.

- That’s it!   

Friday, June 1, 2012

Eyes on the Horizon

DHS Seniors/NIP,

            If you had seen me aimlessly ambling along a sidewalk 15 years ago, I guarantee you wouldn’t have looked me in the eye. What you probably would have seen was me shoe-gazing while walking. My weight issues in my early 20s certainly saddled me with an amazing lack of self-confidence; I had no luck in life or love, or at least that’s what I told myself at the time. If you witnessed that same scene now, you’d see me marching forward, eyes on the horizon. I wouldn’t say that I’m totally confident in my abilities, but I’m certainly no longer afraid to look the world/life squarely in the eye. Though some of this change is due to better physical health and overall weight loss, much of this personal transformation has been mental. In the previous letter I mentioned sankalpas, which are brief statements of intent similar to an affirmation. One of the three that I repeat to myself every morning is “I am a confident and courageous person.” I’ve been telling myself this for more than a year at this point and—whether it’s due to the neuroplasticity of the brain or otherwise—I’m really starting to believe it. I feel more confident and courageous in all of my choices, and this has led to me looking at my life and how it impacts others in a completely new way. Each day is a chance for us to believe in ourselves a little more, to raise our gaze to meet the horizon and all that it brings us.

            There are two ways we must keep our eyes on the horizon, literally and metaphorically. The literal sense is important because it helps us not walk into walls or other people, but it also shows others that you are not afraid, that you believe in yourself and your potential. Moreover, it’s a great way to meet new people. Even when I’m walking around campus I find myself seeking eye contact rather than trying to avoid it as was my previous wont. I try to smile and say hello to whomever I pass; sometimes I get weird looks from students who don’t know me, but I especially try to reach out to those kids who seem like the old me, walking with head hung low. The other reason it’s crucial to always look to our horizons is that it’s precisely how we see the most in terms of scale, which brings me to the metaphoric meaning of always bringing our bearing to the vanishing point on the horizon.

            In the fall semester of this school year, I took my 7th period Philosophy Honors class outside to have class beneath the live oak near the northeast corner of the DHS campus. There’s a ringed bench that easily accommodates an entire class, and it wasn’t the first time we had been out there to enjoy the weather and discuss life’s largest ideas. But this day was different. We went outside with the express purpose of staring at the horizon across the road and out into the large, lush green fields that extend to a faraway woodline. It was a Friday, a day that is typically earmarked each week for discussion about that week’s material. If I’m not mistaken, it was around the time we had been discussing British Empiricists such as Locke, Berkley, and Hume. These skeptics argued that a thing can only be comprehended (and by extension, exists) when it’s experienced through the physical senses. In the midst of our discussion, I somehow tangentially related this (shocking, I know) to a type of meditation I like to do when out in nature. It’s fairly simple to do because all that’s required is to stare at the center of your horizon. At first you have to pick something to stare at in the middle and focus on it with intent. Then, over the next few minutes, allow the gaze to soften as if relinquishing the central focus. What happens next is amazing. The only way I can describe it in words is “an expansion of the peripheral vision.” Once we let go of the focal point, it’s as if both eyes are staring straight ahead with equal focus on disparate parts of the horizon. This type of focus allows us to not only see what’s in front of us, but what’s on the sides to a greater degree too. The hardest part, however, is not letting the eyes be drawn to one particular thing in view. If you get it right, it’s amazing. It seems as if birds that fly across your vision only momentarily exist within your consciousness. The same can be said for passing cars, falling leaves, or anything else. After a few minutes of sitting on the bench, many of them were able to see what I was describing, but were flummoxed by the fact that they were so easily distracted thereby losing the effect. With practice, though, it gets easier.

            This is what we must do every day of our lives, NIP. We must not only keep our eyes on the horizon literally, but metaphorically as well. Sometimes we can be too focused on an outcome, a goal, or even a dream. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being focused, but being overly so can be detrimental in the sense that we may miss other opportunities. This would be equivalent to staring only at the center of the horizon, rather than relaxing our eyes and taking in the vista in its entirety. I cannot imagine how many opportunities I’ve missed out on in my youth because I was blinded by a preconceived notion of what I wanted or who I should be. In either case I was forcing life’s hand rather than graciously recognizing the hidden opportunities all around me. By metaphorically keeping our eyes on the horizon, we can focus on the present moment and yet still see the possibility of the immediate future. We can shape our personal destinies through the choices we consciously make, mainly because we’re aware of all that lay before us and we are open to it.

            Today was the DHS graduation and I couldn’t be there. Though I wish I could have been there to celebrate and share their special moment, one of my choices precluded this outcome. I’m not worried, though, because I know that they will be walking tall across that stage, eyes on the horizon. It may seem like a great leap forward in life, but to tell the truth any day that we want to change our lives for the better is always a great leap forward. So whether you’re 18 or 80, know you’re capable of incredible things, NIP. It’s as simple as reorienting ourselves toward our horizon, gazing into the distance and taking life head on. I spent so many years being shy and introverted that I’m only just now learning what it’s like to leave the safety of my old shell. And you know what? It’s wonderful. There’s a whole lot of life right in front of you, all you have to do is open your eyes and take it all in.

Keep your eyes on the horizon, DHS Seniors/NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. – If you have the chance, try the meditative technique I described earlier in the letter. More than half of my philosophy class was able to do it after only several minutes. I particularly enjoy doing it at the beach, a large field with a copse of trees at the far side, or looking off deep into the woods. I love being out in nature, so if you do too I think you’ll love it.