Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health

New research from Carnegie Mellon University provides a window into the brain changes that link mindfulness meditation training with health in stressed adults. Published in Biological Psychiatry, the study shows that mindfulness meditation training, compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker, in high-stress, unemployed community adults.

Source: Neurobiological changes explain how mindfulness meditation improves health

Pupils with PTSD, teacher with mindfulness

So, this week I read in one class’s Whats App group, that I don’t know how to get mad.

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stop, pause and continue.

This was an interesting comment and brings me to think about how I appear from a student’s point of view, or at least that student. Who is the student, one might first need to know.

He was presented as someone with problems, who can fly off in outbursts of rage and that as teachers, we are not to yell at him or go ‘head-to-head’. We were told to leave him alone, and to respect his learning accommodations so that he could function at least during tests.

This particular student made the decision with his parents’ agreement to join our Partnership 2gether Project, a living bridge connection between some of our 7th grade students and Bet Shraga school in Albany. We communicate via New Year’s cards, posters, internet joint projects, emails and of course through Web Conferences.

This said pupil conformed to the first few requirements but stopped at the 3rd and 4th. No card made, no youtube clip made, but he wanted to come to our meeting this past Thursday when we would be working on a joint Tu B’shvat project (birthday celebration of trees and plants) and then a Hangout with our partners in the US.

When I instructed them to pick a plant or tree native to this area, pupils got busy choosing and learning how to work with Google Slides. This pupil ,maybe I’ll call him “M”, chose a hand grenade. In Hebrew, hand grenade is the same as pomegranate. He thought it was applicable. I told him to get to work, and to choose a proper plant.

As I was walking around the room, I saw Tal, the head of the entire Partnership 2gether Project in our Western Negev area, take the computer from M and tell him that he was formally out of the project. M got up, kicked the computer cupboard and left the building.

A few minutes later, other pupils started to say, ‘Hey! My picture disappeared.’ ‘Mine, too’.  and more voices chirped in until someone said – ‘It’s probably M!’

I went outside to inspect. Sure enough, there was M, reclining on a bench outside the Grade 7 building with his phone in hand, clicking onto a picture and pressing delete. I looked, uttered a reproof and quickly took his phone to prevent further damage.  I went back into the classroom and removed his name from the joint Google slide file.

He came in, took his phone, left and as we all prepared for our Hangout trans-Atlantic conversation, another pupil came to me with a Whats App conversation in his hand. ‘Judih, look at this! Take him out of our group!

Then the phone rang and I got busy answering.

While the phone rang and my US partner and I worked out the bugs, apparently little M was busy trolling our whats app group. I  removed him from the Whats App group and carried on.

We spoke to the kids! The kids introduced themselves, said thanks for shared Chanukah cards and were happy to talk. We then presented the Tu B’shvat idea – ours and theirs. And we signed off.

Meanwhile, M decided to take his complaints to my regular English class whats app group. He explained that for no reason, he had been removed from the Project group. He had done nothing. Then, only because I was incapable of getting mad, I took his phone.

When I spoke to his homeroom teacher, I reported some of M’s chosen phrases to post in our chat group and I was told that the things he said were typical (calling us all “Hitler lovers” and “may you all burn”). I was advised to update M’s mom and especially emphasize the fact that his phone was a key player in the drama.  (The phone being a sensitive object in M’s life)

M’s mom informed me that his use of a hand grenade as an object for focus is a known phenomenon with him. She told me that he’s PTSD and in any situation remotely possible, he’ll revert to weaponry to express himself.

This was new to me. No one had previously mentioned this. One would think that a pupil having PTSD would be information worth sharing with his teachers. But now I knew.

And as I ponder how to deal with this student, I recall his words that I don’t “know how to get mad.” I wonder what constitutes getting mad. Is getting mad yelling at them, turning red? Is getting mad punishing them till they want to shrivel into worms? Is just a little punishment considered getting mad?

If M is judging my show of anger in relation to his own, I expect I should start kicking computer cupboards and finding interesting curses for my students.  Kicking something is good, but only with protective shoes. Cursing might work if I can think of something in a Shakespearean style, perhaps.

Food for thought.

Thanks, for listening.

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So, what about my Grape Fast?

Background

School breaks for the Sukkot holiday in the fall, sometimes in September, sometimes October. The Hebrew Calendar works on a movable system. And that makes it seem new each year. The weather can be horribly hot or pleasantly cool. You never know what you’ll get.

Also, it’s a delicious respite from the heavy load of schedules and testing pupils. There’s no fear of authority figures in Government ministry jobs suddenly demanding something of me. They’re working half-days, no time for a small civilian like me.

It’s a true time for replenishing all sides and dimensions of the self.

So I had a choice to make.

There was a vipassana retreat during the break. Should I go and leave my mate and children in order to meditate with a sangha of others?  A noble option.  But, I wanted to be home. I wanted to wake up when I wished. I wanted to enjoy being in my own environment. Perhaps, I’d actually do work to prepare my puppetry workshop, get a literary piece ready to be taught. I wanted to study Tibetan Buddhist Meditation  on Coursera and participate in the online Mindfulness Summit.

I wanted to flow. Choice made. I would stay home.I could study and prepare and meditate and take walks!  

Decision to do our annual Grape Fast!

Mmm grapes
Mmm grapes

Gadi went to the kibbutz store, bought grapes and then he went on a further trek to buy more grapes. We would be eating only grapes and drinking water for how long? Five days or so.

It works like this: every 3 hours, we’d eat a portion of grapes, chewing the seeds well.  If hungry, we’d snack on grapes. No problem. We drink water.

It’s a de-tox diet. Because of the nature of grape sugar, it doesn’t require effort by the liver to break it down. Hence, this respite allows the liver to detoxify.

Day 1

Usually the first day, I’m ravenous. I was! I had a huge appetite in the morning and hunger levelled off in the evening.

That night, lying down, I noticed some weakness in my calves. It was strange to feel. I hadn’t done any unusual forms of exercise, just my usual routine and a usual walk of 6 kms or so. Nothing unusually strenuous. Was it the first sign of flu? To be seen…

Day 2

My calves were so uncomfortable that I couldn’t find a sitting position to ease the feeling. And worse…the ache was slowly working its way up to my thighs. This was worrisome.

I felt tired. I didn’t feel like making puppets, though I tried. I didn’t feel like talking to people. I wondered if I had a fever. I tried to rest, but couldn’t seem to get comfortable.

Only walking really felt good.

I was a lot less hungry, but ate grapes, choosing between concord (super sweet), red (slightly less) and green (more watery). I also found that when I got up from sitting or lying down, I’d get dizzy.  Hmmm, low blood pressure.  Could this be cause I was un-caffeinated? In fact, what was going on?

How many toxins did I have in my body that were starting to make themselves heard?

That Night

Calves hurt. Thighs hurt. Pelvic bones hurt!  What? Me? You must be kidding. And a slight fever!  Was it just a little flu, unrelated to the grapes?  In my heart, I didn’t think so.

Day 3

Not having slept, I woke up confused. I did my usual routines, meditation and exercise and then went searching on the net for possible confirmation that I was simply feeling the side effects of the grape diet. Sure enough,  there was mention of muscle pain and mild fever. Okay. That seemed to be in the right direction. But, on the other hand, what if all the calcium in my hips was breaking down and turning to powder? The non-caffeinated mind has no limits.

We continued to eat grapes. No real appetite but still we continued. We took our long walk. I felt fine walking. I guess my bones were still in place and functional. But I couldn’t sit, or lie down without discomfort.  Gadi was fine. A short headache that passed quite quickly. A momentary twinge in his lower back, which soon was gone.

Surprise Visitor

We suddenly got a visit from our son, just back from Canada. He was coming home for a visit. Gadi warned him that we didn’t have any food. We were grape-ing.  The wheels of my mind began to turn. Hmmmmm.

Dare I stop the fast?  That little thought attracted some inner smiles.

Ahl showed up. Gadi made him coffee. I got to smell it.

And a decision was made. I announced that I was seriously considering stopping the fast. Gadi was amazed. But we said we’d do it for 5 days at least!  I told him he could continue but I wanted to stop. He told me that as a team, he’d stop too. We would go shopping. Pick up some vegetables and eat a real meal that night.

We did. Huge salad with Gadi’s incredible vinaigrette and his amazing vegetables.

That night.

I felt good. Pelvis felt fine. Legs felt much better. I slept.

What if?

The Day after,  Gadi read to me: The results of a grape fast can only be felt after 3 days.

He went on: “Next time, we will continue. You’ll see that things will get better. This was a sign that you have toxins to expel.”

Ah, grapes. I guess it’s true. I’m toxinated! I drink coffee. I sometimes use a fake powder to lighten the coffee. I eat rice crackers.

Other than that, I’m pure as pure can be. I breathe the air – no choice there. I eat the vegetables that grow in our soil. There’s no real way to conquer that until our own vegetables sprout from our own soil, shielded from the spraying of the kibbutz gardener.

Lessons learned

It’s amazing what physical pain does to the mind. It depresses. It makes life seem harsh.

When pain disappears, optimism returns. Everything is effortless or at least can be after a little meditation or reading a heart-warming story.

With pain, nothing seems to help. The will to be creative might be there, but it hurts to dredge it up.

Without pain, oops, it’s back! Or if it isn’t, it doesn’t matter. Look at that face. How wonderful. Or listen to that child’s voice! How miraculous.

Pain. How many people carry themselves painfully. How many people deal with a  chronic suppression of all that’s joyful because of physical suffering?

Note to self: be kind to all. Perhaps they’re suffering and don’t realize how it’s affecting their outlook on life.

Grape Fast. I thank you.

Till the next time.

It’s Time to Meet my Inner Organizer!

It’s time to meet my inner Organizer.

I need her now, to stand in her full light, full abilities and efficiency. 

There are tasks that must be immediately addressed. Oh, Inner Organizer, appear! 

I’m not joking. This is serious.  Just look at this list of items that are carouselling in my head.

Task One for Teaching Puppetry for Excellence to pupils aged 9-12

  1. Break down the steps of puppet building in order to create a series of visuals. This needs to be ready by October 12th.

  2. Make a list of all the supplies required to teach 60 pupils in 3 puppet workshops. By Monday!

  3. Decide which items  can be donated from my own supplies. This would be good: an act of de-cluttering while offering generousity and compassion.

Task Two for Teaching Mindfulness, the Language of Attentiveness to 8th Graders

  1. Organize the Mindfulness classes into pleasant cue-cards for easy reference.

Potential further task: Home Check:

  1. Would be nice category: What needs doing in the house – decorating, rearranging, acquiring, repairing. Prioritize and make a list

I know it’s time to call in the Organizer

For her everything is basic logistics. She takes the necessary facts and arranges them nicely into viable and comprehensible steps in order to arrive at a desired result.

The Organizer is so very skilled that she attracts energy and light and makes everything line up into clearly doable chunks.

She brings relaxation to fight or flight jitters. Calm replaces chaos.  

Who wouldn’t love working with her?

It’s time for a visual as I call her forth.

Expert-Sandy Maynard

I call upon my inner Sandy Maynard: Life Coach extraordinaire.

With her, any task is as simple as eating delicious grapes. Buy them, wash them, put them in a bowl and start in. One two three and you’ve got yourself step four! Yes!

mmmm grapes

mmmm grapes

So, awake, ye Inner Sandy! Comb hair. Brush teeth. Wear a clean shirt. Fold arms and smile.

Let’s get started!

(what? first coffee? Okay. Deal!)

So, how’s September been treating you?

September has made herself comfortable on my calendar. She’s brought along new faces, new intentions, new promises to keep.

September-2015-Calendar

I knew about September and her baggage. I knew that as soon as I stepped into the educational framework, I’d be automatically drawn to the many stories surrounding pupils and projects. So, I promised myself to meditate, I vowed to walk intentionally whenever I had to move from building to building. I promised to breathe, to drink water before I felt the incursion of teacher-zombie mode. I would not lose ‘it’ but rather be the presence I wished to be.

This year, among other assignments, I have two challenging classes to teach in regular school. One is a grade 7 class with all the fresh optimism of being in a new school and discovering new customs. I witness smiling faces, still unspoiled by threats of bureaucracy or larger, older students.

They want to learn and they want to succeed. This is a fine meeting of minds! What could be more in tune with my plans? I only need to work out disciplinary measures when the smiles turn to bullying or other anti-social disruptions of the velvety classroom atmosphere.

The other class is a 10th grade class. These dear students are in a pilot programme in which we will be working two programs in the time when usually, only one is demanded. We will be studying the English Literature program at two levels of difficulty – first the basic and then the more advanced. My role is to successfully guide them through it. I don’t expect velvety ambience but I’d love to feel student resolve to work with me towards our goal.

Be the presence, I say to myself.

Calm, attentive, rewarding effort and recognizing positive interaction – that’s my task.

But when shouting and conversations about up and coming parties take precedence over ‘George’s character’ in our story, I need to apply counter-measures.

I pull out Whole Brain Teaching techniques (thank you Chris Biffle). When the class gets noisy, I say “Class!” and they say “Yes”.  If I choose to say it briskly then they must answer briskly. If I go mellow, then they must respond ‘mellow’.  They need to notice me, my voice and my intonation. This is a sound measure to capture attention and refocus scattered minds.

I like it.

I am not required to yell, stand on a desk or speed-dial a Principal in order to secure quiet in the room. I use a stance in the room and one word.

So far, this word has had to be repeated a few times in order to get full-class response, but it still works better than the heavily abused ‘SSSSSHHHHH’ or the slightly more linguistic “QUIET” neither of which seems to be effective for longer than a split-second.

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It’s mid-September. I still remember to walk intentionally from class to class. I’m still wearing my Canadian-bought Crocs, which are slightly more stylish than the originals, but are so utterly comfortable that they cradle my step and help me notice my feet on the patio stones that pave the underlying sand dunes of our desert school.

I remember to breathe, but usually only when I wish to remind others to breathe. Their anxiety helps me remember my own!

I drink water. Unfortunately, as I deplete my huge bottle, students deplete their own and I’m forced to reassess upholding the school rule which states that in a double lesson, the students must remain seated for the first lesson and only during lesson two, can they get up and refill their bottles or empty their bladders.

Bureaucracy! (as I feel my pulse elevate, I breathe!)

So, September!

I’ve also been given an added pressure. I’ve heard through  the grapevine of past students that so far, or at least as of last week, I’m considered the ‘best’ teacher in 7th grade, and true or false, that piece of info adds additional weight. What a huge standard to maintain! The best teacher keeps calm, teaches at a few levels to inspire all students, employs different media to allow all students to show off their knowledge or learn new skills. The best teacher is pleasant and utterly human. The best teacher needs to have a pleasant smell and an appearance that speaks for itself (energetic, alive, etc)

Even the second best teacher would be a title I could live with. But ‘the best’? Oy. and ommm.

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In October, I have a few more projects and courses to study.

But now, mid-September, I have a chance to pause for Rosh Hashana.  Here is time to read a few brilliant writers, enrich my heart, hug my family.

May I have the inner resources to deal with pressures one ion at a time, and in my doings, maintain my effort to be in the present moment.

I wish you the same!

Ramble on Brambles – this week’s mindfulness reflection

Brambles! Those intertwined dry snappy branches that challenged Prince Charming in his quest to get to Sleeping Beauty. You know the type, not only ever-present but also there to slap you in the face, sometimes with green leaves, sometimes with thorns.

They all need my attention! Breathe!

It all needs my attention! Breathe!

Brambles are also how I’ve decided to represent those ubiquitous happenings  that invade my daily dealings and/or also occupy space in the brain as I replay past events, past feelings or future worries.  Brambles, those ever-present distractions that I must overcome. (I could list a hundred and I know you can, too!)

Of course, they are there, constantly. And so the struggle to deal with them and get back to what I intended to do is also constant. But it’s not hopeless. A path can be created, if my intention is clear and if my will is able to withstand distraction. (Just remember the Prince! He managed to slice his way to his prize.)

How can I manage to clear away the brambling distractions from my path?

The first step in any good path creation is wanting to do something: wanting to begin, follow through and get it done. Then comes recognizing the brambles. Noticing that they exist. Noticing that they pop up. Noticing that they keep popping up.  Noticing when.  Then, noticing that they prevent me from getting to where I want to be.

Take a typical morning. I wake up and set off on a course of a number of deeds and tasks to be done before I can open my front door and be on my way. Every morning I do the same things – sometimes in a different order just to keep me alert to what works best. So, here I go again. A new morning. I wake up early and begin my string of activities when, suddenly, an urgent phone message. My help is needed! I must photocopy a document and immediately send it to my son. He’s overseas and needs it right now! His 7 hour time-zone difference can’t wait for me to complete my 5 a.m. rituals.

No choice. I’ve been called to act.

Fight or flight: There’s no immediate danger to my being. Go ahead! My brain wants to break out of the gate and run full-speed ahead. Quick! Where is this document? It could be in any number of locations.

Emotions join the mix: a conversation.

One small voice:  Hmm, what about my own schedule?

Another voice: How selfish! He needs you!

A third voice: Just get on with it – all this discussion is wasting time!

Overall voice: I love him, I want to help. I will manage this!

  • So, first step: A path.

  • Next: noticing the intrusion.

  • Then: assessing if I can meet the request.

  • Follow-through: I step up to the plate.

  • Bonus: While searching for what he needs, I can mindfully focus and search. I can do the task. I can recognize what needs to be done, be mindful of expending only the amount of energy required – no need for panic or excess drama. No real need for all those inner voices – who are all those people, anyway? Do they always chime in? Another thing to notice!

The whole time, I have my own intention on hold, waiting for the all-clear signal. Once I’ve completed the task, found the document, photocopied it and sent it, I can resume.

One conquered bramble! And in taking self-inventory: no wounds, no slapped face. Only a sense that there’s been a gentle meeting of ‘Task’ and my effort.

Sometimes, the noticing is not so clear-cut. It can be very difficult. As I move through my day, it’s one distraction after another and all occur quite naturally. Someone needs to talk, urgently. Someone needs advice, at that very second. Someone needs help. Someone else needs to hug. Someone on the phone. Someone on the way home. Lots of  ‘someones needing something from me’. This is often called living in a society. Okay, I can deal. I know that people constitute a part of my day and I can learn to differentiate between the sweet green leaves and the thorns.

What about all the events that occur? Spontaneous situations? I need to arrange a room, a class list, an appointment. My filling falls out, my laundry needs folding. There are things in life that happen that require attention.

Often the needs of others or the events that crop up offer a chance for positive sharing and good feelings. This is why it’s all so confusing. If it feels good and positive, then how can I see it as a distraction? Life is flow, is it not?

Sometimes it takes distancing from the scene. When my immediate environment is devoid of others or immediate tasks, only then, can I breathe fully, hear myself breathe, and notice that I haven’t been doing that simple yet essential exercise for most of my day. When someone else wants my attention, how automatic it is to offer it on the spot, without that initial breath or being present in my own body, aware enough to take a meditative moment before I leap.

So, this is the time to notice the ‘brambles’, the surprise pop-ups that unfailingly appear. As pleasant as a hug or as threatening as a projectile headed my way, all oncomings are better met with mindfulness.

Meeting the unknown mindfully, aware of my breath, my feet on the ground or my body on a chair, I can better offer what is required of me, or deflect that which is best avoided.

Formal practice in the form of meditation sessions, whether sitting, walking or lying down, all slowly build up my ability to sustain a more awakened presence. And if there’s only enough time for 3 mindful breaths, those breaths have the power to take me to a more mindful place.

Make no mistake, chronological age does very little to make the work easy – it all requires effort. Practice is the key. And so very worth it.

May I learn how to clear away the brambles from outside and from within and carry on to meet my own intention.

ramble on brambles

slow walk

The calendar is about to flip. Summer vacation is trickling to an end.

Look at all this!

Look at all this!

and

what’s in store?

Again this year, I’ll be discovering new students and working to meet the minds of others in a way that opens up options.

A fancy way of saying – i hope to learn how to teach so that we all learn.

Meditation is part of this mix – the more the better. Morning sits, afternoon sits, breathing exercises mid-lesson or after lesson. On Thursday evenings on the kibbutz and whenever I walk or remember to be mindful.

Teaching 8th grade students the exercises of mindfulness and what all of it will do their brains.

I’ll be studying a few courses, online and in-person and that means that I’ll be mixing mindsets and schedules – tossing a salad of school and non-school.

I get to offer Puppetry to kids from ages 9-11 who choose to be exposed to alternate learning environments.

Lots to do.

but

Before this whole enchilada is served, I’ve got a birthday to acknowledge. I’m entering the official golden years of my life. I’m an oldie.

Retirement age. Half-price on public transportation. I don’t know what else, but I’m sliding right into finding out.

Happy birthday and may this third third of my counted days be fun!