Happy New Years Eve!
This holiday is a perfect metaphor for the important facet of mindfulness of living in the present moment.
All over the globe, people of all faiths, personalities, ethnicities, abilities, ages, genders... the whole beautiful range of humanity, will join together to celebrate that very moment when the clock strikes twelve.
Even people who have never practiced mindfulness formally will be observing that crystal clear experience of not being in the past or the present at exactly midnight.
For hundreds of years before "mindfulness" was ever named, this experience of appreciating time out of time was acknowledged and celebrated. I consider this to be great evidence for the inherent human need for pausing to be fully present with kindness and curiosity.
But, unlike the holidays of All Hallows' Eve and Christmas Eve, both part of the season of celebrations which will culminate in New Years Day tomorrow, New Years Eve is totally secular and universal- just like mindfulness.
So tonight when you count down to 2019, please really savor all the gratitude for the past year and anticipation for the new while cherishing those twelve bells when it's not quite either.
All the fireworks and introspection, hugs and kisses, toasts and hope, and deep connection to the shared human experience of the moment- even if you are physically alone when the year turns-can be yours all year if you practice mindfulness.
If you commit to just 5-10 minutes per day of meditation, within 6-8 weeks you will begin to form new neural connections and increasingly be able to access that "clock striking midnight" feeling at other times throughout the year.
Wishing everyone a peaceful, joyous, safe celebration tonight!
In the same pivotal year, 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zinn started the Mindfulness movement by founding his Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Walter Burke Barbe et al pioneered the theory of differentiated learning styles. They identified three learning modalities: Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic, known by the acronym VAK. In 1987, Neil Flemming added Reading/Writing as a fourth style, which Howard Gardner more appropriately broke in to Linguistic and Logical styles in his definitions of multiple intelligences. Although the idea of students having different learning modalities was a popular educational theory for almost thirty years, it has recently fallen out of favor because, in direct contrast to the mounting evidence to support Kabat-Zinn’s ideas, there has been very little neuroscience to support the Styles of Learners hypotheses. Instead of separating and labeling students by learning styles, it is more appropriate and effective to integrate all of the types of experiences in the classroom. This newer theory of integrated experiential instruction based on the five learning styles (the original VAK plus Linguistic and Logical) is naturally suited to teaching both Contemplative Art and Mindfulness.
Any creative activity which affords the participant the opportunity to be fully present with their feelings, intent, the material and the product is Contemplative Art. The argument can be made that until the Renaissance and the rise of portrait and landscape painting, all art forms were religious and inherently contemplative. Cave paintings, music, calligraphy, sculpture, stained glass, ikebana, literature, the tea ceremony, medieval mystery plays- from primitive times to the rise of humanism all creativity celebrated the idea and image of the Devine as understood in the creators’ cultural context. Most great artists in any field would still say that the element of immersion in their process and the investment of their feelings and personal attachment is critical whether their subject is religious, secular or even abstract.
This meditative aspect of creation is what defines Contemplative Art as a Mindfulness Practice and is not only the domain of the genius. Any person of any age can use mindful creativity as a form of meditation. Children do it intuitively and the popularity of adult coloring books reflects how many people want to reconnect with that part of themselves. In Waldorf schools, watercolor painting and modeling with beeswax are taught as contemplative practices from preschool. In Montessori classrooms there is always an art area where the focus is on the process not the product because the actual product is the development of the child’s inner life. Since the mid-1940s when psychologist Margaret Naumburg began referring to her work as Art Therapy, the field has spread to hospitals, clinics and schools all across the country. Because the goal of developing awareness through the immersion in a certain type of consciousness is the same with Contemplative Art and meditation they can be woven together seamlessly in any Mindfulness Practice.
Many art forms from ancient eastern Tantra to modern performance art focus on the experiential, the process and somatic awareness. Somatic awareness is the information we receive thru our felt senses and goes way beyond the tactile sense of touch to include the whole neurological system, our awareness of our bodies moving thru space and those intangible feelings we often label “gut reactions”. Somatic experiences rely on input that is kinesthetic, visual, auditory and beyond. Incense can add another sensory layer to meditation as can a finger labyrinth or even a “worry stone”. Mindful Eating even engages the taste sense. Savasana from yoga or a “body-scan” in secular mindfulness practices both bring awareness to the subtleties of somatic awareness.
Probably the most recognizable and easily duplicated example of somatic experiential art is the work of Jackson Pollock. Children as young as toddlers can feel the connection between their inner and outer life when provided with a large piece of paper on the floor, some paint and jazz music. This activity is just one simple example of a Contemplative Art and Mindfulness exercise which integrates different styles of learning- the Visual, Aural and Kinesthetic. To involve older students who are beginning to add Linguistic and Logical thinking, mindful projects of journaling or researching more about the artist could be added. For a longer term group project, the time-honored tradition of a class producing a musical, however small scale, artfully combines all five learning styles plus the extremely important Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills of collaboration, organization and usually some degree of diplomacy.
Although it can be very freeing to focus on process instead of product when creating, not all Contemplative Art has to be temporary or disposable. There are almost unlimited sources of inspiration for projects that produce work which can be used in future Mindfulness Practices. Stringing mala beads is meditative in the process but also results in a bracelet that the maker can use to count breaths or mantras (and is an excellent exercise in small motor skills). Calligraphy, sculpting, drawing, painting, even candle-making can yield items which can be used as visual focus objects in future meditation. Baking bread can be a peaceful process of awareness (as well as a means to think about measurement and numbers for the Logical Thinking) and afterwards a vehicle for a practice of mindful eating.
Just as Contemplative Art can be practiced in different learning modalities, so can Mindfulness. It‘s a common misconception that meditation is always a static practice usually performed in a sitting posture. Although many people do meditate while sitting, either on the floor or in a chair, there are Mindfulness practices for every one of the five learning styles. There are traditions of walking, standing (which is particularly good for grounding) and even laying down meditations. Mindfulness of a focus object/picture/statue/ flame is an exercise in Visual Learning as well as concentration. Being present with a bell or other neutral sound like waves, drumming, chanting is an Aural Learning experience. Mantras & anchor words are particularly good for Linguistic Learning in meditation but can also be helpful for those with a preference for Auditory Learning. Journaling and writing poetry are good creative contemplative practices for Linguistic thinking. Zen koans, esoteric symbolism and “magical” numbers would be things to ponder to mindfully exercise the Logical parts of the brain. Walking meditations, labyrinths, & yoga are particularly suited to Kinesthetic Learning as are tai chi, dance and eurhythmy.
In Gardner’s model, he lists seven types of intelligences, the five already mentioned plus Interpersonal and Intrapersonal. It is probably more appropriate to additionally assess the personal preference of Solitary vs. Social Learning for each student than to label these two as additional Learning Styles. Since Mindfulness is Awareness, no matter which is a persons more natural temperament - Solitary or Social- it is important to be able to experience both types of being present, being with yourself and being with others for basic SEL. This is especially important in a classroom setting and a mindful teacher can skillfully guide the daily dance of balancing each child’s need for independence/solitude with their need for socialization. While the general perception of meditation is that it is a very solitary practice, and any of the above types of practice can be done alone, many also lend themselves to group settings as well. Sitting, walking, chanting, and yoga are all particularly good Social Mindfulness Practices. Outside of a classroom setting, volunteer work, retreats and seasonal celebrations or festivals all are occasions for people to be mindful but not solitary.
Likewise, most Contemplative Art practices can be done in a Solitary or Social setting. Music, dance, mural painting, poetry slams, group writing projects and theater are all mindful creative activities that can be very Social and collaborative. These should be balanced with more inward turning Contemplative Art practices such as watercolor painting, journaling, calligraphy, dance or musical solos and independent writing projects.
Of course, none of these practices are actually mindful if there isn’t awareness on the part of the participants and the especially the facilitator. This intangible quality of being fully present and creatively weaving multi-sensory experiences together to present lessons in differing learning styles for all students makes teaching itself an ultimate exercise in Contemplative Art and Mindfulness.
Mindfulness Practice as a Tool to Accelerate Brain Development to Keep Pace with Social Evolution
Early hominids’ survival depended on being alert, vigilant and ready to respond and react very quickly to threats- real or perceived. As Darwin explained, in “On the Origin of the Species”, traits which increase the likelihood of survival remain in the gene pool, so any physical or mental adaptations that reduce reaction time would be inherited. Thousands of years later, we are still hardwired to have hair-trigger reactions. It’s a bit of a disconnect that our emotional and intellectual evolution hasn’t kept pace with the rate at which our First World lives are becoming physically safer. This causes individuals to experience stress and anxiety and to over-react to many stimuli. Our inflated competition for resources and primal responses to potential dangers also causes social dysfunction. Over thirty years of research has shown that mindfulness practice can actually help individuals to reprogram their brains for more appropriate responses and better social function.
The primary area of the brain responsible for threat detection and fear responses is the amygdala; it is primed for vigilance. This way, the brain can compare new experiences with old ones and in a split second assess the safety of a situation. It has been an effective system for keeping our species alive for tens of thousands of years. It is, however, a bad system for our mental and emotional stability when the brain sends signals to the body to invoke the same “fight or flight” response to being late for work or getting cut off in traffic as being attacked by a dire wolf. Modern humans are continually physically and psychologically responding to minor threats and emotional distress with the same intensity as life or death situations. Widespread medical research since the 1970s has proven the existence of myriad stress- related illnesses in individuals such as high blood pressure, asthma. diabetes, migraines, depression and anxiety, and gastrointestinal problems.
If inappropriately visceral responses are unhealthy for individuals, they are cancerous for society. To promote survival of the species, negative experiences are typically are more easily remembered than positive experiences. To imprint a bad memory very deeply serves as an instant warning to avoid that potential consequence in the future. According to psychologist John Gottman’s research, it takes five compliments to counteract each single criticism. So obviously any exercise that can train the brain to store positive experiences with an intensity more balanced with negative input will increase individual self-esteem and contentment as well as the quality interpersonal relations.
People in any social group from schoolrooms to boardrooms to living rooms will interact more harmoniously if they are kind and skillful in their choice of verbal, facial and physical messages they are sending to others, and even more so, if they have been neurologically equipped with the ability to process information using judgment rather than instinct. Simply put, if individuals are educated to process input then respond instead of automatically reacting to perceived threats or insults then potentially negative interactions will not escalate and might even be diffused.
It is no coincidence that the term “stress” in reference to psychosocial anxiety was first used by Walter Cannon in 1932 after the Industrial and Technological Revolutions and The Jazz Age, all of which accelerated the pace of work and social life. Modern life and the needs for survival have changed so much more quickly than our brains have physically evolved that there is an evolutionary disconnect between our instincts and appropriate emotional and physical responses. One of the beautiful miracles of our human biology, however, is the “plasticity” of the brain posited by William James in 1890. Controversial at the time, but taken as scientific fact today, this neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt and develop new pathways within one lifetime, means that we have the power to exercise and develop our brains as much as our bodies.
Mindfulness practices are among the few successful strategies (along with biofeedback and psychotherapy) proven to train the brain not to react so immediately or viscerally to negative input that isn’t actually life-threatening. Thru mindfulness, we can pause, notice a reaction arising, label it and make a more realistic assessment of the situation before consciously deciding on an appropriate response. With practice, we can even choose to just let the situation pass of its own accord without attaching any feelings to it at all or acting in any way. Our forbearers didn’t have to go to the gym to exercise their bodies because they were engaged in the physical work of just surviving every day, but now that we mostly sit at desks or do less strenuous work, we have to make a conscious effort to exercise to stay physically healthy. In much the same way, we have to make a conscious decision to give our brains a workout to retrain them because the social and emotional skills needed for 21st century life are so much different than those our ancestors needed to thrive.
Positive feelings, such as, compassion, love and gratitude stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest” as opposed to “fight or flight”). Just as with the panic feelings of the sympathetic nervous system, the positive sensations of the parasympathetic nervous system can become imprinted and strengthened with repeated exposure and mindfulness training to become a reservoir of calm that we can access when needed. With continued mindfulness training, our brains can even learn to automatically go to the calming nerve centers associated with the parasympathetic system when stimulated instead of reacting from the impulses of the sympathetic nervous system. Research in this area by Jon Kabat Zinn thru his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, launched in 1979, was the foundation of the secular mindfulness movement.
Mindfulness training also increases the plasticity of the prefrontal cortex which is involved in neural integration. One increased function in this area with meditation is self-awareness and awareness of societal norms. This promotes making appropriate social choices for the good of the self and others. Improved functioning in the prefrontal cortex also increases empathy and communication skills, both the ability to better read facial and tonal cues from other people and the mental dexterity to respond in a thoughtful compassionate manner. Most importantly, the prefrontal cortex is involved in fear modulation or the ability to recognize if the level of distress is proportional and appropriate to the actual situation.
In our modern world, especially the in the workplace or schoolroom, our dangers are
much more likely to be social /interpersonal than physical, so mindfulness practice not
only helps to moderate and tame our animal instincts coming from the amydgala, but actually makes us more attuned to the data being processed in the prefrontal cortex. So it’s really no exaggeration to say that mindfulness practice can actually help to reprogram parts of our brain to be more evolutionarily in line with the social needs of our “civilized” lives. Mindfulness practice can help not only the health of individuals in this way but also benefit society by improving our compassion and social/emotional intelligence.