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…”

A Conversation on Mindfulness, Bias and Racial Justice

Stephanie Domet: I’m Stephanie Domet, an editor at Mindful magazine and a writer and podcast producer for mindful.org. This is a special edition of “The Point of View” podcast featuring Mindful magazine and mindful.org founding editor Barry Boyce in conversation with Rhonda Magee, Ram Mahalingam, and Mirabai Bush.

Mirabai Bush is the co-founder of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which seeks to transform higher education through the introduction of contemplative practices and perspectives. Mirabai has worked at the interface of mindfulness and social justice since she learned contemplative practices in India in the 1970s.

Ram Mahalingam is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He’s the director for the Mindful Connections Lab. His current research is on mindfulness and dignity in hospital settings and in the cleaning industry, with a specific focus on janitors in India, South Korea, United States and Japan. He teaches an undergraduate course on mindful leadership and a course on mindfulness and engaged living.

Rhonda Magee is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco. Also trained in sociology and mindfulness-based stress reduction, Rhonda is a highly practiced facilitator of trauma-sensitive restorative mindfulness interventions for lawyers and law students and for minimizing the effects of social identity-based bias. Magee has been a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society and a visiting professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s also the author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice published by Penguin Random House.

We convened this panel to talk about issues that arise out of racial justice, including a discussion of concepts around privilege and fragility—two ideas that are also examined in the October issue of Mindful magazine. It may be both unfortunate and fortunate that racism is so much in the news these days. It’s a hot topic in homes, campuses, offices, and in the media across North America and around the world. It’s unfortunate, of course, because we’re seeing a reigniting and re-emergence of hate speech and incitement to act harmfully, even violently. Fortunate, perhaps, because we may be uncovering deeper forms of division that we can explore in the ultimate interest of finding unity, interconnection, peace and justice.

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Mindfulness for Middle Schoolers

In recent years, mindfulness education has become a mainstay in many schools. However, we know little about how it affects students’ developing brains or their academic performance.

Two new studies from Yale and Harvard Universities and MIT shed some light on the question, finding that mindfulness may reduce emotional reactivity in the brain as well as improving mental health and academic success for middle-school students.

Mindfulness Boosts Emotional Well-Being in Teens

In the first study of its kind, MIT researchers showed that mindfulness training may alter brain functioning linked to emotional processing in sixth-grade students. Published in Behavioral Neuroscience, the study included a subset of about  40 middle schoolers who participated in a trial comparing the effects of eight weeks of either daily mindfulness training or “coding” instruction.

The mindfulness program was adopted by Calmer Choice (an organization aiming to teach young people how to better manage stress) to be appropriate for middle-school students. It emphasized attention training and strategies for coping with stress, negative moods and unhealthy attitudes.

Join the Mindful Educators Community: Free Mindfulness Resources for Teachers, Parents, and Communities

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Meditation in Public Schools: Pro or Con?

As mindfulness gains popularity and governments begin to study the impact mindfulness has on students, some people may be wondering: is teaching meditation to students a good thing?

In this video from Vox, Liz Scheltens explores how mindfulness is making its way into US schools.

Why Bring Meditation to Schools?

Harvard researcher Sara Lazarstudies how yoga and meditation impact cognitive function. After noticing how her own yoga practice calmed her, she was interested in learning whether it was a placebo response of if meditation could change the brain. She decided to study the brains of people who had never meditated—first with a brain scan before they they participated in an 8-week, 30-minute meditation program.

Lazar noticed changes in different brain regions—in particular, thickness increased in certain areas of the brain related to learning, memory, and emotion regulation (the hippocampus) as well as perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion (the temporoparietal junction).

[Kids] are more likely to take the skills home and teach the parents, to teach people in their community, and that’s how we’ve seen the biggest change we made.

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How to Meet Loss and Pain Without Fear

Mindfulness involves several attitudes of mind that are pivotal to the transformation and liberation of the mind: befriending, compassion, joy and equanimity. These qualities are seen as the foundations of all our development as we embark on a path of mindfulness practice. 

Every one of us can cultivate, train, and naturalize these four qualities, in the same way that attention can be trained and developed. In the face of great distress, though, befriending, compassion, joy, and equanimity can disappear just when they are most needed. Today, we’re going to focus on the second of these qualities: compassion.

What Does It Mean to Grow Our Compassion?

Like all capacities, our capacity for compassion grows when we tend to it and nourish it. We have all experienced moments of compassion when the heart softens in the face of pain, distress, and suffering, and when we can be open to the vulnerability that is part of the human experience. These moments can be close to home—such as when a child in our family is sick, or an elderly relative becomes increasingly frail—or on the world stage, such as when we hear about a devastating natural disaster or an innocent bystander grievously injured in an act of senseless violence. In these moments, the divide between self and other softens, the narratives of criticism and blame fade, and we inhabit, perhaps for a few fleeting moments, a world infused with kindness and compassion.

Compassion is an orientation of mind that recognizes pain and the universality of pain in human experience and the capacity to meet that pain with kindness, empathy, equanimity and patience. Its roots in Latin (compati) are to suffer with. Its affective tone is deep care, connection, and responsiveness. It is not, however, an emotion—rather, compassion is an understanding imbued with intention. The near enemy of compassion is pity, because self and other are separated and there is a sense of “I am looking down on your suffering.” Compassion’s far enemy is the wish to see someone harmed, or outright cruelty.

Compassion is central to all of the great foundational spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Although it takes different forms, the intention to transcend self-centered concerns and the invitation to respond compassionately to pain and suffering is present in each. What is also present in each tradition is the notion that compassion can be trained and cultivated—that sustained and dedicated practice can educate and re-educate the heart. So, although compassion is deep in our natures—present in us even as infants—education, cultivation, training, and practice can help us bring greater intentionality and a wider ethical framework to our compassionate response.

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Binge-Watching the Stories in Your Head

We are drowning in stories. Ads tell stories. Video games, movies and TV shows, too. A lot of journalism is politically-motivated fiction. And even science is story; authors convince us through compelling narratives, weaving together select findings and literature. We are storytellers. It’s who we are.

I know what it’s like to be totally wrapped up in stories. In my teens and early twenties, I was immersed in them, and to me, they were absolute, unshakeable truth. I debated aggressively with anyone who disagreed with the stories I believed in. I talked at people. I barely listened to anything they had to say, because I was certain they were wrong and I was right.

I had no idea how much I was just parroting whatever I’d heard elsewhere. I was just repeating and regurgitating things with no awareness of just how limited my perspectives were. This pattern continued until I found myself on a mountain in British Columbia on my first silent mindfulness retreat.

Recognizing the Stories We Tell Ourselves

People often think about mindfulness as a relaxation tool, but for me it’s been a vital tool in seeing how the stories in my head have been shaped by others. The more I’ve sat in silence and observed my mind over the past decade, the more I’ve noticed the incredible influence of stories. It was frustrating at first. My mind was constantly thinking, telling incessant half-baked stories about everything. When I tried to pay attention and calm them down, it was completely overwhelming.

Those first few years, I got immediately wrapped up in the desperate need to stop this from happening. I thought the whole point of meditation was to silence my thoughts, and I ended up even more frustrated. Now that I realize the futility of this pursuit, I feel a sense of nostalgia whenever I find myself guiding others who have fallen into this same trap. Stopping your mind from telling stories is like telling a cow not to ‘moo’. Stories are what define us. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Concrete objects can pull free of the earth more easily than humans can escape humanity.”

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