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!   

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