A Holiday Meditation

A Holiday Meditation

Each week our team at Mind Body Align gathers on Tuesday afternoons for a brief group mindfulness meditation. It’s a chance to connect not just as colleagues but as humans “being”.  This was my week to lead and I really felt pulled toward this fabulous meditation from Jack Kornfield as our monthly topic of gratitude was coming to a close plus we are all about to celebrate Thanksgiving.

I love the way it reminds us to begin our gratitude meditation by recognizing the way we feel and how we have cared for ourselves, then we express gratitude for all things and finally we move to express gratitude for others and wish them joy.

We were so moved by the words that we began our Coffee Talk with the meditation and now we want for you to be able to access it throughout the holiday season and beyond.

Meditation on Gratitude and Joy by Jack Kornfield

Let yourself sit quietly and at ease. Allow your body to be relaxed and open, your breath natural, your heart easy. Begin the practice of gratitude by feeling how year after year you have cared for your own life. Now let yourself begin to acknowledge all that has supported you in this care:

With gratitude I remember the people, animals, plants, insects, creatures of the sky and sea, air and water, fire and earth, all whose joyful exertion blesses my life every day.

With gratitude I remember the care and labor of a thousand generations of elders and ancestors who came before me.

I offer my gratitude for the safety and well-being I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the blessing of this earth I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the measure of health I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the family and friends I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the community I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the teachings and lessons I have been given.

I offer my gratitude for the life I have been given.

Just as we are grateful for our blessings, so we can be grateful for the blessings of others.

Continue to breathe gently. Bring to mind someone you care about, someone it is easy to rejoice for. Picture them and feel the natural joy you have for their well-being, for their happiness and success. With each breath, offer them your grateful, heartfelt wishes:

May you be joyful.

May your happiness increase.

May you not be separated from great happiness.

May your good fortune and the causes for your joy and happiness increase.

Sense the sympathetic joy and caring in each phrase. When you feel some degree of natural gratitude for the happiness of this loved one, extend this practice to another person you care about. Recite the same simple phrases that express your heart’s intention.

Then gradually open the meditation to include neutral people, difficult people, and even enemies until you extend sympathetic joy to all beings everywhere, young and old, near and far.

Practice dwelling in joy until the deliberate effort of practice drops away and the intentions of joy blend into the natural joy of your own wise heart.

You can read the original post on Jack Kornfield’s website here

Awakening Within The Fertile Silence Of Nature

Awakening Within The Fertile Silence Of Nature

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” -John O’Donohue 

We were four days into a week-long backpacking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when Aurelio busted his ankle descending Tuckerman’s Ravine, a craggy glacier cirque just south of the summit of Mt. Washington. Before us was a mile of talus deposits, like staircases for giants, that we would have to negotiate before Lion’s Head trail merged into the more pedestrian section of Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail. It’d be another two miles before we reached Hermit Lake Shelter, where we would stay for the evening. 

There was no way for help to reach us, so Aurelio ground out the last few miles by leaning heavily into his hiking poles. He didn’t utter a word of complaint so that Cameron and I were surprised when we reached camp and he removed his boot, revealing an ankle twice the size it should have been and a dark purple bruise spreading across the bottom edge of his foot. 

With Aurelio unable to hike, we decided to set up a more permanent camp for the remainder of our trip. The next morning, we abandoned the established trail and headed deeper into the forest, until we found a secluded spot along Peabody River. There we slung our hammocks and fell into an unspoken rhythm of camp chores: scrubbing pots, filtering water, washing clothes, and building fire. 

We spent the afternoon relaxing on boulders in the middle of the river, listening to the immense volume of water rushing by, ever so slowly bending those enormous stones to its will. Aurelio submerged his bum ankle in the cool water. We each kept a journal at our side and would stare into the eddies of water like soothsayers for hours before finally jotting down a line, an insight, a revelation. 

That evening, as we sat together in the chiaroscuro of firelight, it occurred to me that we had hardly spoken a word to each other all day, yet I had never felt closer to my friends. I suggested that we read a few poems, as is the tradition for us on the trail. As I read my poem, the words seemed foreign. All form and no content. Usually, we relied on the poetry to draw us deeper into the moment, deeper into connection with one another, and to remind us of the holiness at work in all of this dirt and sweat, but now the words only seemed to efface the profound silence that had already settled over us. As the words faded away, becoming but felt memories in the tiny bones of our ears, we settled back into the fertile silence of nature like deer, having awakened to the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. 

“The ancient rhythms of the earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of the human heart. The earth is not outside us; it is within: the clay from where the tree of the body grows.” – John O’Donohue 

In the West, we have the tendency to prioritize our minds over our emotions and physical bodies. We tend to see the brain as the primary organ, and the thoughts that the brain secretes become the dubious foundation for our sense of self. But what about the ancient rhythms of the human heart; the way joy and sorrow precipitate one another? What about our forgetfulness, which allows for the beauty of the world to be continuously rediscovered? What about the landscape of the human body: its pleasure and pain, the secrets held in its musculature, the way it always tells the truth? The body is a universe of sensations that precedes any labeling done by the mind. 

There is a practice in Tibetan Buddhism called Dzogchen, in which the practitioner breaks through or sees through to their natural, primordial state of awareness. In Dzogchen the symbolic and imaginary layers of human perception drop away and there is direct knowledge of the ground of Being. Dzogchen is the clarity and wakefulness of the senses left to their natural state. It is faith in the flow, ease, and spontaneity that naturally arises when we surrender our hypervigilance and obsessive mental reflection. In Dzogchen the individual’s way of being-in-the-world is as simple as a tree producing fruit. 

I believe the concept of the soul, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, can bring us into a way of being that is similar to Dzogchen. If we become silent enough to listen from the soul, the delusions of ego fall away and we can become directly connected to that deepest part of ourselves, to our true and authentic core. Whatever actions arise out of this mode of listening-from-one’s-soul will necessarily be of the spirit of love, will be of God. This is not the surface level mentation about morality and ethics, but the spontaneous compassion and wisdom that arises from the soul’s natural goodness. 

In the west, we tend to fear this spontaneous action. We distrust our instinct and view the unconscious as a realm full of shadows that must be contained, tamped down, and repressed by our ever-vigilant mental activity. Nature, therefore, is important because it teaches us to accept the epistemic limitations of the mind. Nature insists that we stop identifying with our capricious mental arisings and enter into a deep engagement with the truth of our heart and body. Nature insists we fall in love with the mystery of Being. 

When we nurture a consistent connection to nature, we are reminded that we too possess the same simplicity of being that is present in the birds and the trees, the same uncomplicated is-ness of the natural world. We begin to feel intimately woven into the emerging pattern of all existence, connected to all things in this present moment as if by an umbilical cord stretching back to the singularity. 

We all have access to the fertile silence and stillness that nature inspires. Don’t worry, it doesn’t require that you spend weeks in the wilderness, I just happen to be a tough case when it comes to awakening. An occasional overnighter in your nearest state park or evening strolls in your local nature preserve might be all that you need. Perhaps tending to a small garden is enough for you. As the Buddha taught in his Flower Sermon, when we enter nature, listening attentively at this soul level, a single flower is enough to awaken us to our natural great perfection. 

 

Transforming the World, One Mindful Student at a Time

Transforming the World, One Mindful Student at a Time

Imagine you are a bear hibernating for the winter. When bears hibernate, they take long, slow, deep breaths in and out, through their noses. Take a long breath in through your nose, and let it all the way out. Take another long breath in through your nose. Let it all the way out. Keep breathing like this and feel how relaxed and warm and safe you are in your cozy bear cave. Once more, take a long breath in through your nose, and let it all the way out. 

Now imagine this is how teachers lead the first minute of math class for first graders all across the country. The room becomes calm, and the teacher is able to start the lesson on time, with the focused attention of the students. These are bite-sized mindfulness practices, and when they’re done consistently, they can be a powerful tool to help our children live healthier, happier lives. They are simple to execute, they take very little time, and they cost nothing. In a world that’s increasingly fast-paced, where kids are bombarded with media and screens, where they have less and less downtime to just be, these practices can teach kids essential skills. Like- how to calm themselves. How to focus and pay attention. How to manage their behavior and emotions, and how to practice compassion and kindness. They can also help kids cope with and release anxiety and stress. 

Anxiety is a serious problem for teachers, parents, and children. When I go into schools to help them bring mindfulness into the school day, I hear over and over from teachers, principals, and school counselors that the teachers and students are stressed out. Even very young children are displaying more anxious behaviors than teachers have ever seen before. 

Anxious kids have a hard time in school and in life. Anxiety causes them to have difficulty focusing and paying attention. They can have behavioral and emotional issues. They’re not ready to learn, and even the greatest teacher in the world can’t get a lesson across if students aren’t ready to learn. We have the tools to help them and to help every child who will undoubtedly, at some point, suffer from stress and anxiety. 

We don’t have to take mindfulness on faith. 40 studies a month are coming out on the positive effects of mindfulness in the classroom. Science and research demonstrate it’s positive benefits for our health, happiness, work, and relationships. An organization called Mindful Schools looked at 400 elementary school students in four areas of classroom behavior: paying attention, participation, self-control, and respect for others. The students did a simple mindfulness program three times a week for five weeks, and they found significant gains in all four of those areas. 

Just think about that for a minute. Improvements in self-control and respect for others are a total gift for teachers everywhere but are also critical skills kids need to learn just to get along in life. Paying attention in class and participation directly leads to academic gains. They benefit not only the students in that classroom, and benefit the teacher, but also the school will perform better, the school district will begin to improve, and the positive effects ripple outward into the community. 

Now, as a former elementary school teacher, I know that teachers don’t need or want one more thing to teach in the classroom. They already have too many standards to meet, and mindfulness is not on the state tests. My reply to teachers and parents who don’t have time is this: take just one minute for consistent mindfulness practice and you’ll get it back. Your classroom will be calmer. Your students will be better able to pay attention. The lesson will go more smoothly, without interruption, and you will have more teachable minutes. We all know it just takes a few slow deep breaths to help us feel so much calmer because studies show controlled breathing sends the brain a signal that all is well, and the brain begins to calm the nervous system and to slow the body’s stress response.

In order for these practices to work, the kids have to like doing them. So they have to be built around concepts that kids enjoy. They have to be fun. For example, we take a cup of hot chocolate, but it’s much too hot to take a sip right now. So we have to blow on it to cool it off. We take a long breath in and we blow toward the hot chocolate. Repeat that six, seven or eight times. Or we see a big beautiful flower that we’ve never seen before. We’re curious how it smells, so we bring it up close and we take a long sniff and then let our breath all the way out, and we repeat that five, six, seven or eight times. 

When I go into schools and I have 20 super wiggly kids sitting in front of me all smashed together on the floor, I lead them in bear breath or flower breath and they become totally engaged and quiet. The teachers are generally pretty surprised, but the kids are not still because I taught them the benefits that deep breathing has on their central nervous system or because they have been reading up on how trendy mindfulness is. They’re quiet and still because it’s a concept that speaks to them and because it feels good and because it works. 

Like any other skill, constant practice is the key to its effectiveness. Paying attention is the skill we constantly ask kids to do, but we don’t teach them how and we don’t have them practice it. The act of paying attention over and over to our breath coming in and out of our bodies teaches kids to pay attention to other things. Consistent practice for schools means fitting it into the schedule at a non-negotiable time. The same time every day and everybody knows what to expect. 

It takes one minute, but over time it begins to build the muscles for practicing focus, emotion regulation, compassion, and kindness. This isn’t an enrichment program. This is an essential program. 

Think of a child who is caught in a cycle of acting out and discipline and punishment. In school, she disrupts the classroom. She is removed from the class. She misses the lessons and gets behind. She gets frustrated. She acts out some more. Her grades slip. She eventually gives up on school altogether. This happens all the time. 

Now imagine if that student had a grown-up in her life. A grandparent, a teacher, a school counselor. A parent who consistently taught her simple mindfulness practices tailored right to her age.  Over time she learns to calm herself. She also becomes self-aware so she recognizes that she’s about to act out and can stop it in its tracks. She practices showing kindness to other people. She’s able to stay in the classroom, keep up with her studies, graduate, and go out to be a force for good in the world. 

This one simple tool can literally change the trajectory of a child’s life. Now think of this effect multiplied by hundreds, by thousands, by millions of kids and you begin to see it’s so simple, but it can be so powerful. Imagine self-regulation being taught alongside academics in all of our schools. Imagine a whole generation of kids who are self-aware. 

We’re talking about an approach that can be implemented in every home and every classroom tomorrow morning. We start with baby steps, but they are powerful baby steps. We don’t need to wait for the school system to change. In fact, we can’t wait for the school system to change because kids need to be learning the skills now. Start now with the kids in your life. 

 

Growing Older, Seeking Wiser

Growing Older, Seeking Wiser

What do you want to be when you grow up?  At age 15, as a messy mix of idealistic earnestness and reckless curiosity, one thing to me was clear — when I grew up, what I wanted to be was wise. I was humble enough to know that I wasn’t there yet but confident that the goal was attainable, and that I’d certainly have everything figured out by the time I was nineteen.

It’s taking longer than I thought… I’m now nearly 50 years into this wisdom journey, and I’m still a work in progress.  I have picked up a few bits and pieces along the way though, and I‘ll gladly share what I have. Please note that these ideas are subject to change, based on future experiences. Further bulletins as events warrant.

  • Experience. I get a lot from books, mostly knowledge, and community. Both are priceless, but neither one is wisdom. Wisdom, that deep, clear, understanding that is always there, sometimes hidden in plain sight, arises from experience. For me, the best learning experiences often come out of an unintentional process of making mistakes and then watching what happens next. Much like roller skating, I learn about life by falling down a lot.
  • Change. Everything changes, Everything. All the time, whether I like it or not. In fact, everything is changing right now. I try to not spend too much time dwelling on this, or I’m apt to find myself drifting into a story, drawn away from the beauty and truth of this moment.
  • Truth. For me, a simple idea, but not always a simple practice. Many of my more epic learning experiences have their origins in self-deception; seeing things, people and experiences as I wish to see them or am conditioned to see them, not seeing them as they truly are. Am I seeing you or my thoughts about you? Am I seeing me, or my story about me?
  • Surrender. I’m learning to do the best I can with wholeheartedness and clear intent, but to then let go of attachments to the outcome. Crazy talk, right? This is really hard for me, the letting go part. When my efforts in life pay off, I want to savor the sweetness. I want credit. Conversely, when the Universe, in the form of fate or other people, does not play it my way, I want to warm myself by the fires of righteous umbrage.  A little savoring is good, a little indignation is ok, but these things unchecked can take on a life of their own; soon my ego is in full bloom and I am cut off from the true source of my original good intentions. Dammit, in the weeds again!
  • Meditation. It helps. As I continue to mature, I’m becoming a little more patient and consistent in my practice, not from slowing down but rather because of experience. I’ve seen over and over again how sitting gives my stuff time to settle, clears the channel, lets a little light in, and so improves the quality of my engagement with the world. It’s not in the time spent sitting, or even the quality of that time, but how that time changes me, forms me into someone who is a little easier for the world to put up with.
  • Love. When in doubt, choose to love. Love others. Love being alive. Go outside and love the world. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it feels ridiculous. Love anyway. It’s worth it.

Thank you for sharing your time with me. Bear in mind that nothing I have said here is the truth; it’s only my own best current understanding. Now go, live your life, check it all out for yourself. Enjoy!

Creating Your Sanctuary

Creating Your Sanctuary

When I was a child, I had two sanctuaries.  One was under a huge tree in the woods visible from my house.  The leaves of this tree were thick and the ground beneath was soft with leaves and moss.  The branches hung low to the ground so that I felt invisible to the world outside (although my house was safely close by and could be seen and heard).  My second sanctuary was my bedroom. I had a room at the front of the house with two windows overlooking the yard, neighborhood, and the woods beyond. I pushed my bed under those two windows and sat there reading for hours, immersed in the authors’ story while watching the world outside my windows.

As I look back in time and remember these spaces, I recall the sense of safety and contentment I felt.  I’m also noticing the elements that characterize these spaces. What can I learn about creating my modern sanctuary from these childhood spaces?

How comfortable are you being alone with yourself?

My safe space has an element of alone, invisibility, quiet, and yet it must have eyes on the world.  For me, watching the movement of the world allows my brain to soften and my mind to wander. I work while watching cars going by from the windows of The Butterfly House.  My meditations are eyes open, where I can calm mind and body by regulating my rhythm with the chorus of the world around me.

What arrangements and elements create, for you, a sense of safety?

I prefer to sit with my back against a wall.  As a child, I would tuck my body into the corner of my bedroom.  When I was under the tree, my back was resting against the security of the trunk.  And I realize I need something on which to place my feet. I either place a footstool or a table directly in front of my meditation chair.  If I’m sitting on a cushion on the floor, I often place another cushion in front of me. Sometimes I place the cushion or a blanket on my lap. Notice how your body feels when you arrange your space.  If you close your eyes and listen to your body in harmony with the space around you, what do you notice?

What colors and textures bring softness to your body and mind?  

You might start by asking yourself, What vistas allow your mind to relax and wander?  Do you love to overlook fields and valleys, rivers and trees, sparkling lights of office towers, or the ebb and flow of ocean waves?  Consider these things when selecting colors and textures. If your favorite place is a beach on the Caribbean, then choose colors that remind you of sand, sun, and Caribbean waters.   You may put a hammock or a hanging chair in your sanctuary along with a happy light or a full spectrum light box. If you like rivers and trees, you might collect river stones and place them in a bowl and burn candles to represent bonfires. Your colors may be shades of brown and green with touches of grey.

What words and phrases encourage you to explore your beliefs and values?

Surround yourself with words that open your mind to new ideas and possibilities.  If you love to read, place books in your sanctuary that encourage thoughtfulness. I am surrounded by books that I can read a paragraph or chapter that will set my mind down new roads of thought.  Poets such as Rumi and Mary Oliver. Authors such as Tara Brach, Roland Merullo, and Robert Wright. Be intentional about the words and thoughts that may penetrate or influence your thinking and allow the wisdom of others to invite you to explore new ways of being.

What sounds resonate with you and make your body hum?  

I love to meditate with the free app called Insight Timer.  This app has a feature making it possible to choose a chime and set it to repeat at designated intervals.  I can create a 20-minute meditation with three repeating chimes, each chime, for me, a reminder that I’m meditating.  If my mind has been captured by a story, the chime encourages me to return to my breath, and if I’m deeply in the meditation, the chime invites me to sink deeper.  Wind chimes have the same effect (if they are the correct tone). When the wind kicks up and activates the gong in the trees at The Butterfly House, I immediately sense my body moving toward the sound.  It’s an immediate call to quiet; my body softens and my mind calms. For you, it may be the sounds of the waves and the seagulls or the wind in the trees and bird song. My suggestion is that you choose sounds, or choose music that doesn’t have words or lyrics, and notice how your body and mind responds.  Continue to move toward sounds and music that connect you to the energy of the world around you.

What smells bring you comfort and joy?

This can be a tricky one.  Do you know that fragrances, all fragrances, including pure essential oils, are hormone disruptors?  70% of synthetic fragrances contain a chemical called phthalates which disrupt the body’s normal hormone function and have been linked to things like birth defects, breast cancer, and obesity.  Any label that says “fragrance” is likely to contain phthalates. If you’re reading this and think, “hogwash,” consider this. Most people will agree that lavender helps you relax. Why do you think lavender has that effect on the body? My research indicates that lavender interacts with the neurotransmitter in our brain called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) which regulates anxiety.  It has also been proven to be an endocrine disruptor having a mild effect on the body’s levels of estrogen and testosterone. My advice to you is to choose wisely, do your homework, avoid scented candles, and less is more. Be intentional about the fragrances with which you surround yourself.

There is no “one size fits all” when creating your sanctuary.  Consider gently activating all your senses, stimulating your thoughts, and nourishing healthy emotions. So, Let’s recap:

  1. Know yourself.  Create your space in a location where you will use it (a corner of your family room, an empty bedroom away from the rest of the world, or a treehouse in the backyard).
  2. What elements help you feel safe (a locked door, your back against the wall, a weighted blanket)?
  3. What colors and textures calm your body and mind?
  4. What words and phrases motivate you to grow and evolve?
  5. What sounds activate your parasympathetic nervous system (binaural beats, Marconi Union, Enya)?
  6. What smells calm you and bring you joy?

If you’re interested in creating your sacred space and would like additional guidance and coaching, we are offering, in our sacred space (The Butterfly House), the workshop, “Creating Your Sacred Space” on March 18th.  Click here for more information.

Sending you love and a deep breath!!!

Mindfully,

Annamarie

Creating Your Sanctuary

Creating Your Sanctuary

My first thought when approached with the subject of Creating Your Sanctuary was “easy peasy, I’m a designer at McCready Interiors, I do that for clients and customers every day”. I ask many questions to find what they want their environment to reflect, then select styles and fabrics or leathers that will be successful in creating that feeling.

A sanctuary is a place of refuge, a place of safety, a place to retreat, it should reflect whatever brings you a sense of peace and tranquility.

In reflecting and researching for my blog, I considered that my personal sanctuary actually changes quite often. My home is obviously a sanctuary where I retreat at the end of the day, but I soon realized I have many opportunities for a sanctuary; a walk in the woods, my gardens, a yoga class, even a visit to the home of my best friend since high school to enjoy the hot tub and catch up.

Your sanctuary may be the beach, an exercise class, a girls night out, or a space in your home you can make your own. It could be those moments when you have the opportunity for “no boys (or kids) allowed”, a big comfy reading chair or a place you can have quiet time to reflect, meditate, or just slow down to recharge.

As women, many of our lives are centered around taking care of others;  we are nurturers, caregivers, helpmates. We tend to do for others before taking care of ourselves. When we give our all to everyone else, there is little left for ourselves.  The importance of self-care is critical to our well-being. We must take the time to regard ourselves highly enough to carve out time and space to enjoy a sanctuary of our own.

Creating your sanctuary is simply making a space that gives you the opportunity to surround yourself with an area to take a breath and unwind.

If you are able to start with a blank slate space, select a wall color that reflects calm to you. Select pieces that avoid clutter and chaos, keep the space simple. This is an area you want to be able to completely relax in.

Carefully edit what you place in your sacred space, less is usually more when you are looking for a place for quiet or meditation. If nature brings you calm and joy, place greenery or nature-inspired artwork there. Position your comfy reading chair facing a window so you can enjoy the view. If the beach is your sanctum, use colors that reflect the sand, sea, and sky. Surround yourself with beauty and an atmosphere of calm. Turn off the TV and turn on your favorite music if you don’t want silence. I have many Pandora stations I can select from to enhance whatever mood or feeling I want to focus on. I choose Motown if I want to escape and maybe dance a little (when no one is watching), Glenn Miller if I’m feeling nostalgic, Eric Clapton or the Beatles for a variety of reasons, and slow smooth jazz or classical choices to for a quieter environment.

Candles whether real or the real-looking battery powered styles can set the mood with soft lighting. Many of us have essential oils and diffusers to provide soothing scents to help create the perfect environment.

When we make time to devote to ourselves and nurture ourselves, we become our better selves. A sacred space is a perfect place to let our best selves shine through. Creating a sanctuary isn’t difficult. Just remember to keep it reflective of who you are and what kind of energy you want it to invoke.

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