Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

7 Children’s Books with Mindfulness Messages

As children’s book authors who are also parents, we have read perhaps every children’s book under the sun about mindfulness and breathing. A while back, our six-year-old announced: “No more books about breathing. Breathing is BORING!” Shortly after that he was sitting at the dining room table with his crayons and asked us how to spell “breathing.” Cleaning up later we discovered he made a sign that said “B-R-E-A-T-H-I-N-G” in his crayon scrawl, inside a large red circle with a slash through it.

The moral of that story is that perhaps the best mindfulness lessons are, well, subtle. With that, we offer our list of breathing-free contemporary kids books that manage to include lessons about mindfulness without being explicitly about mindfulness. 

1) The Silver Button by Bob Graham

Bob Graham’s simple story recounts events happening simultaneously during a single minute in a child’s life. At 9:59 a.m., a silver button is placed on a doll’s boot, a baby is born, a jogger puffs by, and more. Both of our kids adore the cartoony illustrations and visual repetition in the detailed images as they zoom out from a single bedroom to a neighborhood to a cityscape to the ocean and beyond. The book elegantly demonstrates interconnection, as well as how much  there is to notice when we pause, become present, and truly pay attention to the moment. 

2) Big Tree Down! by Laurie Lawlor

Looking for a mindfulness book that also includes heavy machinery? This is the book for you! While Big Tree Down! may be more about heartfulness than mindfulness at first glance, after a few reads, many lessons about connection, compassion, impermanence, and the senses shine through. A storm knocks down a big tree and the neighborhood comes together to treasure the day. They watch the workers cart the tree away and restore the power. Neighbors swap stories about Big Tree over melting ice cream and continue to gather in the same spot as the years pass. 

3) Leaves by David Ezra Stein

A friend gave us this simple board book when our son was born. It is the story of a bear exploring the forest and hibernating as the seasons change. What resonated for us was how much the book reminded us of the mountain and lake imagery from Jon Kabat Zinn’s books and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses. Stein’s book manages to touch on acceptance, change, equanimity, wonder, and growing up all in just a few sparse pages.

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Unwinding Your Anxiety Habit Loop

I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of reading the same tips over and over about how to calm down and destress. I’m tired of trying to slow down my breathing when my chest feels heavy, and question the worst-case scenarios running around my head. 

That’s why psychiatrist Judson Brewer’s new book Unwinding Anxiety is so refreshing. Yes, it has some tips—but they don’t come until much later in the book. In fact, his whole point is that tips alone won’t help those of us who struggle with anxiety. 

Brewer shows how anxiety exists inside the habits that make up our everyday lives, and habits are sticky. They won’t go away just because we tell ourselves to breathe— because, as crazy as it sounds when talking about anxiety, our brain is attracted to these habits because they create some sense of reward.

Implementing tips and tools skips an important step, Brewer argues. Before we can try to change anything, we have to spend some time observing our anxiety-related habits. Only then—by showing our brain viscerally how unrewarding these habits are—can we move to actually creating new ones. 

Unwinding Anxiety offers a three-step process to help you do exactly that, backed up by Brewer’s extensive habit research. While many well-being books can feel overwhelming, his approach is reassuring in its simplicity but different enough to feel like it just might work.

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P.A.C.E. Yourself: A Practice Honoring Healthcare Workers

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, the population was largely split into two groups: The essential worker group, who were required to actively work on the frontline, and another group that was asked to stay indoors and work from home. Healthcare professionals largely fell into the former category. The pandemic continues to be a challenging time for all, but perhaps none more so than for healthcare staff.

The way I understand these current challenges in healthcare is rooted in my experience as a physician, and particularly my specialization in the science of mindfulness, compassion, and emotional intelligence training. After experiencing burnout working on the frontline, I discovered the healing potential of mindfulness and self-compassion practice and, in doing so, realized the need for these practices within medicine. This led to the creation of the Mindful Medics: Healthcare starts with Self Care program. While I’ve spent the past five years working to optimize the health and well-being of healthcare staff through Mindful Medics, my focus on supporting those within this workforce has deepened during the COVID crisis—and I’ve observed and worked with a harrowing series of emotional shifts, experienced in a collective way by those working in healthcare during this time. 

Weathering the Emotional Storms of COVID

The start of the pandemic saw staff working hard despite PPE shortages, creating an underlying fear for one’s own safety and the safety of colleagues. Some decided to move out of their homes into a hotel in order to continue serving the population, while also safeguarding their families. Healthcare professionals were having to manage this new virus quickly amid the chaos of overflowing hospital wards, rationed vital equipment such as ventilators, and the grief of losing their patients and/or colleagues. 

The staff I worked with reported intense anticipatory anxiety in the hours before a shift. One doctor expressed feeling always on edge, that he could never relax and  didn’t sleep so well anymore.

In the initial stages, many doctors and nurses were in sympathetic overdrive, as a collective surge in adrenaline tapped into healthcare professionals’ inherent motivation to be of service. But as we know all too well, the stress state allows us to function optimally only in short, acute bursts. A few months into the pandemic, it became obvious that COVID was not going away. The staff I worked with reported intense anticipatory anxiety in the hours before a shift. One doctor expressed feeling always on edge, that he could never relax and didn’t sleep so well anymore. For many, even in their time off, there was no true rest or recovery. Having previously worked as a doctor in emergency medicine, I know firsthand that having downtime and switching off from work are integral to clinical effectiveness, even at the best of times. 

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How Mindful Movement Can Support Your Meditation Practice: Q&A with Cara Bradley

In the past, I’ve struggled with seated meditation because when I remove distractions, it feels like an opportunity for anxious thoughts to take over. Mindful movement has felt more manageable to me because there is more to focus on. As I’ve practiced yoga more, it’s become easier for my mind to settle and seated meditation now feels accessible to me when it didn’t before. I had some questions about this and went to Cara Bradley, a mind-body expert and mindful movement instructor for her advice on times when it feels like there’s a mental barrier to seated, still meditation.

Ava Whitney-Coulter: To start off, not all movement is mindful, so what makes mindful movement different?

Cara Bradley: What makes movement mindful is when we place all of our attention on movement and the body and what’s happening in the body as you move; the sensations that are arising, even the thoughts. A seated formal mindfulness practice would be, for the most part, paying attention to your body sensations, breath, thoughts, and emotions. The mindful movement practice doesn’t change the practice all that much. It just adds movement as an anchor for your attention. Any movement can be mindful. 

AWC: One thing that I’ve noticed is the importance of anchoring our attention in both seated mindfulness practice and mindful movement. I’m wondering if you can tell me about why it’s important to have that kind of anchor.

CB: I think anchors are essential, especially when you first start this practice, because our minds are untrained. Often, the metaphor used is the untrained puppy dog that’s not on a leash, that will go anywhere the new smell is. An untrained mind is very much like that. To have an anchor to hold our attention and to gently pull ourselves back is essential. 

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When the Ego Hijacks Mindfulness

Practice mindfulness for any period of time, and you’ll know its wide-reaching benefits. But what happens when the practice is hijacked by the ego? When “being mindful” becomes a concept, another form of mental commentary that distracts from the present?

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, without being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. An area of focus is often used to reach this state of presence. 

For example, in mindfulness meditation, you might focus on the breath or another “anchor,” such as a pleasant sensation or the feeling of the weight of your body on the chair. During day-to-day activity, the focus is the task immediately in front of you—washing the dishes, talking with a friend, exercising.

Anyone who has attempted meditation understands how difficult it is to avoid being carried away by currents of thought. This constant stream of mental activity has a strong grip, and it takes time and patience to tame the wandering mind. Plus, not all thoughts are equal, and some catch our attention more than others.

If a particular pattern of thought or belief occurs regularly, the ego might “hijack” those storylines, forming part of your identity. For example, if you see yourself as a thoughtful person, you might develop an ego around this belief, and I am a thoughtful person becomes part of your identity.

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