Sunday, January 30, 2022

20 Years of Solitude (fundraiser for Burma)

Book SynopsisWhen she was 23 years old, Ellen McCarty decided to face her fear of being alone and signed up for Buddhist warrior training in Southeast Asia (Burma). This story captures the myriad challenges she faced as she progressed from beginning to advanced mindfulness meditation practice at silent retreats in remote forest monasteries. This story is also about democracy and the beacon that America represents to millions of people around the world living under dictatorship. In Burma-Myanmar, decades of military dictatorship were overcome in 2007 by a non-violent protest movement led by Buddhist monks and nuns, known as the Saffron Revolution. Inner and outer liberation is the birthright of all human beings. May all people be free.

50% of the author’s net proceeds from this paperback book will be donated to the Burmese people (link below). Donations will support non-violent protesters as they struggle to survive and restore their democracy after a February 2021 military coup, a tragic consequence of our own American president #45 announcing to the world (and to all aspiring dictators) that elections aren’t real and can be discarded. The book’s title is a dual reference to the evolution of my meditation practice over two decades and to the 20 years of house arrest endured by Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. My hope is that this book will encourage international support for Burma’s National Unity Government (NUG) made up of deposed Democratic leaders elected in 2020 including Suu Kyi who are dedicated to a federal democracy with minority rights. Note: this book is not appropriate for minors.


Click links below to purchase

$10 iBook on Apple Store

$20 Paperback on Amazon

Monday, February 18, 2019

When depressed, seek neutral ~ not happy

In the Asian tradition of Vipassana meditation, all of life experience falls into one of three categories: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. New mindfulness students tend to believe that the goal of meditation is to experience only calm and happiness. In contrast, advanced meditation practitioners strive to overcome aversion to unpleasant sensations by facing them and, in doing so, discover the value of neutral.

There’s a humorous expression locals use in Maine, “You can’t get there from here,” spoken dryly to any tourist asking for directions. The words are meant to discourage tourism in the deep-woods state, but there is a wisdom to them that can be applied to states of depression. Anyone who has tried to go directly from depression to happiness knows that it’s not possible. You can’t get there from here.

Bubbly happiness or the fog of depression may sometimes seem solid, like personality types, when actually these mental states are different gears in the mind. When driving a car, you have to shift to neutral before switching gears. Trying to shift directly from 6th to 1st  (or any other gear) is either impossible or, if great force is applied, damages the car. We see this damage when people are depressed and trying desperately to be happy and then beating themselves up, falling into a downward spiral of worse for failing to be happy. The fault is not theirs; our cultural roadmap to well-being is lacking. If you don’t drive, you can think of neutral as “OK” mode. When wanting to shift from depression to happiness, aim for feeling “OK” first. Find a neutral position. From a place of neutrality, you can begin to see more objectively. You may be surprised to realize that when you observe happiness deeply it is not actually pleasant but a subtle form of agitation in the mind. If you can’t see that, enjoy your happiness. The next time your happiness runs out, you can go on a meditation retreat and look deeply once again. Conversely pain in the heart that seems unbearable can be a seed of transformation and inner peace when faced.

Grief and depression tend to arise during big life transitions because the mind is seeking stability that isn’t there and, not finding it, the mind longs for the stability of the past or expectations of a future that cannot be grasped. It’s hard to undergo the strengthening process of finding our own way through the unknown, supported only by our own deepening roots. The reward of facing the unknown and adversity is a depth of wisdom and autonomy that cannot be achieved through surface happiness, by bouncing from one form of pleasure to the next. The safest vehicle I’ve found through life’s uncertainties and adversities, when the stress of transition is overwhelming, is a state of neutrality.

For me, the Buddhist symbol of the Dharmacharya is a clear representation of neutrality. While the spokes of the wheel symbolize the 8 aspects of a moral human life, it is the center of the symbol that is special to me: a small knot at the center of the wheel that symbolizes discipline. This is a neutral discipline. This type of discipline does not arise out of ego. It is not discipline in order to become more beautiful or stronger or better than other people. The Dharmacharya’s quality of discipline is simply a place to rest the mind in the present moment. It’s that simple. The mind is so attached to thinking about the past and future that when you begin to be mindful of each present moment in the rush of daily life, your attention may feel a bit wobbly, like it doesn’t know where to focus. Acting with gentle discipline in the world gives our mind a neutral, stable place to rest in the present. By gently organizing ourselves and our environment – ever-changing – we come to know the quiet space of the Zen master. We are more willing to be present with the emptiness of life’s transitions and, in being so, create space for peace to arise within ourselves and our environment.

The Dharmacharya wheel represents the 8-part moral path that protects against suffering, with each spoke representing 1) right view or understanding of truth, 2) right speech, 3) right intention, 4) right action, 5) right effort, 6) right livelihood, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. The center represents discipline. Photo by Ellen McCarty. 

If you think you’re superior to other people – congratulations, you have good karma but you’re not enlightened. Too much good karma can actually hinder moral development if a person is caught in a delusion of superiority. We can trace the human drive for superiority to the Ancient Greeks. In the first Olympics, there were no second or third places, only first. Any competitor who didn’t win 1st place in the Olympic games was shunned. Unfortunately it seems that deep within our modern subconscious lies a destructive Western belief that if we are not superior to others – if we are not special – then we do not exist. Hence Alexander the Great won his name from an unethical life of war and conquest. By dominating others he became “great.” In contrast in Buddhism and other indigenous cultural traditions, both superiority and inferiority are considered forms of mental illness.

Any wise person recognizes that all beings are equal. Every single life is valuable and has its place in the biosphere. This understanding of equality is what creates our sense of belonging and peace. The moment we choose superiority or inferiority, our connection to others breaks and we feel separated, isolated, out-of-place, dissatisfied. How ironic that our drive to be special and superior undermines our desire for well-being. Striving for a superior position is so deeply rooted in Western culture that it is wise to carefully evaluate any choices we might be making in order to appear superior to others. Superiority is a mental state of self-defense, not connection. Fortunately practicing equality is contagious because the value of equality resonates with all of us at a deeper level. It reminds us of our true home, which is our interconnectedness to each other. In this light, jealousy is pointless. The carrier of gifts does not matter. Each person’s unique gifts are meant to benefit everyone. As you wait for the universe to weave its tapestry of gifts and transitions through time, tend to your suffering. Suffering can be a mechanism of destruction or enlightenment depending on one’s choice to escape it or face it.

Suffering is one way to lose our sense of superiority and develop fearless compassion. It is a blessing in disguise. The challenge in the midst of suffering then becomes not to fall into a pit of inferiority and despair. When life is full of adversity and transitions into the unknown, we can support our well-being by making an intention to cultivate the10 paramis, or ancient universal perfections (translated below from the Pali language) as well as neutral discipline. In this way, even a difficult life is not wasted. We refine our minds and this process of refinement slowly dries up the roots of suffering. Each morning, I read the 10 paramis in Pali to remember them because in our modern, materialistic world it is easy to get lost in the fog and forget higher intentions and the purpose of life.

The 10 Paramis or universal perfections:

1.     Dana, generosity and service
2.     Sila, virtue and morality
3.     Khanti, patience
4.     Adhitthana, endurance and determination
5.     Viriya, energy and effort
6.     Panna, wisdom
7.     Sacca, truthfulness
8.     Metta, loving kindness and compassion
9.     Upekkha, equanimity, peace
10.  Nekkhamma, renunciation

It is important to note that the Buddhist principle of moderation arose out of renunciation or nekkhama, which can be dangerous in excess. In the Buddha’s time, he came across ascetics who practiced such severe renunciation that they were starving. In this deprived state, the ascetics were unable to acquire wisdom. The Buddha taught moderation as a wonderful balance to the pursuit of perfection. Patience also protects the mind from extremes. Do not forget to enjoy your life and dance in the sunshine.

Sometimes we choose renunciation. We can ordain in our various religious orders and give up our worldly possessions. But sometimes renunciation chooses us: when we lose our home or our health or our loved ones, or when we don’t get what we want in life. Renunciation is difficult but whether we choose it or whether it chooses us, if we let it, nekkhamma is a universal perfection that yields wisdom and inner peace. Resistance to renunciation is human. After a time of mourning, we must choose to face loss and experience its strengthening and deepening processes in order to benefit from it. This acceptance of what is can be part of humble, neutral discipline. We choose to continue to be present with our human lives, to willingly participate in backbreaking or heartbreaking cycles of sowing and reaping with the intention to become better people over time.

When I ordained as a Silashin nun at age 23, my head was shaved by Burmese nuns at a ceremony in Yangon (Rangoon). I expected to feel sadness about the loss of hair but was surprised to feel profound relief that my value had nothing to do with beauty. When we let go of everything we think we need in order to be happy, ironically we find that well-being is our true nature. We are love. We are peace. We are equal. Acquiring dilutes what we are. Renunciation, chosen or not, teaches us to let go of what we think we want so we can recognize what can never be destroyed: our true value which is equal to all others. To recognize this is to cultivate a feeling of interconnectedness, which protects against the kilesas, a Pali word that roughly translates as negative mental states or “inner demons.” The kilesas are strongest when we pursue a path of the separate self via superiority or inferiority, both of which depend on a mind focused on acquisition rather than renunciation.

The perfection of renunciation is the opposite of beliefs such as the Law of Attraction. This “law” is a reflection of our society’s cult of materialism: the belief that our purpose in life is to acquire and get what we want and that the more we acquire, the happier we are. This is a rose-colored view of greed. In reality, acquisition as one’s life purpose is a superficial view of one’s own potential. Our lives were meant to be deeper and more noble than that. Renunciation helps us discover that our deepest need is not happiness and acquisition but peace and interconnectedness. Every major religion in the world teaches this: the path of peace. We are not here to acquire pleasures but to let go of all things. If life does not teach us this, death and dying will. We are all powerless in the face of death. Giving up all forms of power over others before death, we live in harmony with reality. Renunciation, letting go of what we think we know and want, is a gateway to inner peace that eclipses happiness. In a state of upekkha, you will not want superiority or excessive wealth, which like any addiction is never satiable. In alpine Europe, the word gemütlichkeit captures the cosiness of a simple life - the spirit of just enough, the ability to take care of oneself happily without excess, which allows all other human beings to take care of themselves with just enough, too. What a beautiful concept.

Nothing in excess. Know thyself. The ancient Greeks were also wise.

Excess allows a person to live in a constant state of pleasure, or escape, avoiding knowledge of self. The self has pleasant, unpleasant and neutral aspects. It is the unpleasant aspects of the self that drive us into escape, into a pursuit of superiority. We have to make a conscious decision to face these unpleasant aspects or our lives will be shaped by the kilesas not our higher selves. You can recognize this directly by honestly evaluating the meaningfulness of your own life. If you notice that living in excess – constantly escaping unpleasants by seeking pleasant experiences – creates a quality of meaninglessness in your life, you can shift from the path of greed to explore a path of moderation. Examine every area of your life and gradually reduce the amount you have so that you have just enough. Notice if you are holding onto anything to support your need for superiority. Ask yourself if this excess is truly making you happy. Notice how your mind feels before, during and after each practice of renunciation and follow the peace. Note: when you give to others, it is more beneficial to give in person not just mail a check. Our modern cult of materialism teaches us that the poor need the rich but actually the rich need the poor. Serving the poor and those who are suffering is a gateway to enlightenment, also defined as the freedom from aversion.

If you want to face your inner demons as a process of renunciation, give up the pursuit of happiness as a form of acquisition of people and things in the external world. Renunciation clears away external distractions so that we can turn inward and take the time to know thyself. Transitioning from a modern life of escape to an ancient practice of facing the kilesas can be a shock at first so make an intention to overcome aversion to your self. Cultivate loving kindness towards yourself and realize that all the gears of the mind have something of value to offer. The more gears we are willing to experience – unpleasant, pleasant and neutral – the wiser and more compassionate we become. On intensive retreat, kilesas reveal themselves as simply deeply unpleasant sensations. We can be compassionate and understand the depression that arises when kilesas drive us into the deceptive web  of our materialistic world, which is caught in the illusion of a separate self – glamorizing superiority. This thick cultural fog blocks our sense of interconnectedness. Fortunately fog is relatively easy to dispel if we know how to recognize it and navigate it.

Intelligence, sensitivity and depression tend to go together because to understand the modern world is to understand the construct of the separate self and its profound suffering. It can be overwhelming to the sensitive person who has the ability to face and perceive this construct. Constructs can be ideological or physical in nature; they can also be changed but to change them requires engagement with the world. By that I mean we have to reinforce our will to live and our will to face unpleasant sensations and great pain in order to train and refine our minds and hearts. We have to want to be here, to live. We have to be willing to cultivate mastery of our minds in the world autonomously, even when we are alone and our path to interconnectedness is not yet clear, even when suffering seems unbearable.

When our will to live is weak, when we don’t see the value of this physical world and cannot face its pain, we disengage and check out. Our smart phones, media entertainment and video games have trained our minds to become experts at escape, at going into a blank state when the physical world becomes unpleasant, so we need to exert effort to pop out of that escapism into a present awareness of reality as it is. Our roots cannot deepen unless we are present. When exerting effort, it is important to use viriya, or right effort. It is very easy to be lazy or too aggressive with ourselves. Western culture was built on aggressiveness; it is one of the reasons sensitive people check out in the first place. Right effort is an antidote to that aggression – it is simply a neutral and gentle shift of attention to the present moment. It doesn’t matter whether the present moment is pleasant or unpleasant. The benefit of this shift of attention to the present moment occurs either way. Note: This discipline should arise out of internal motivation not external pressure from an adult, which can deepen a young person’s depression if they cannot measure up for example, to adult expectations of discipline. When trying to help others, be sure to practice the perfection of khanti, a patience so gentle it does not need suffering to end. Seek to inspire others through deepening your own discipline and meditation practice rather than forcing mindfulness on others, which is actually not possible.

As we are willing to remain present with unpleasant experiences and pain, we become less afraid and experience less aversion. Our mind becomes more stable, able to observe and face what is. We stop focusing on the concepts of suffering and allow our mind to rest in the neutrality, simplicity and clarity of the present moment. We enjoy our deepening roots in times of uncertainty. As we cultivate neutral discipline, our meditation practice and the paramis with a desire to serve others rather than dominate them, synchronicities start to occur. We end up at the right place at the right time. We connect with the right people and experiences. When we are alone, we trust the natural world to reveal our place within it. We discover the quiet self where emotions dissolve into a peace that is greater than our individual selves.

The same day I wrote the first draft of this blog on August 7, 2017, I was given a horoscope cut from that day’s San Francisco Chronicle:

Let go of those things that have outlived their purpose, invest your energy in dawning affections and aspirations and you’ll see that you really can get there from here.”

I smiled.

From a neutral position, all directions are possible.

Photo and blog content © 2018 Copyright by Ellen McCarty. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mindfulness in Special Education

Recent research reveals that even when students with developmental disabilities are not able to practice mindfulness meditation, they still benefit behaviorally and emotionally when family members practice in the home. I reference this research during my family workshops and by request, am posting the full 11-page paper, Mindfulness as an Intervention Strategy, co-written with my colleague Pam Steffensen-Korges as part of my SJSU coursework (completed in 2016). 


Children with developmental disabilities often suffer from unique stressors.  The unremitting aspect of their disability, possible lack of social acceptance and support, and the absence of acceptance by their families can all contribute to chronic stress.  Aggression and behavior problems that are comorbid with many developmental disabilities can further impact feelings of stress.  Due to the fact that parental stress also has a negative effect on child behavior and upon the parent-child relationship, it is imperative that both parents and children receive help with stress reduction.  More than three decades of research on the secular Mindfulness in Medicine movement, more widely known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training, has demonstrated that mindfulness can alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression in many individuals (Felver, Doerner, Jones, Kaye, & Merrell, 2013). The effect of mindfulness on the quality of parenting has been shown to lead to a reduction in aggression and an increase in pro-social behaviors and compliance by younger children with special needs. In 2007 the non-profit Mindful Schools began a Mindfulness in Education curriculum that is now practiced in schools in more than 42 countries. Mindful Schools defines mindfulness as simply paying attention to anything in the present moment and its curriculum has yielded dramatic increases in attention span, empathy and self care in urban youth (Black & Fernando, 2013). Parallel research in the field of neuroscience has revealed that mindfulness training is effective because it actually changes the brain, increasing activity and gray matter in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortext, centers of learning, sound judgment and emotional regulation, while decreasing activity and gray matter in the amygdala, the fight-or-flight center of the brain which can inhibit learning, emotional regulation and attention span (Lutz, Slagter, Dunne, & Davidson, 2008; Hölzel, Carmody, Evans, Hoge, Dusek, Morgan, Lazar, 2010; Chiesa & Serretti, 2010; Goldin & Gross, 2010; Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton, Yerramsetti, Gard, & Lazar, 2011; Desbordes, Negi, Pace, Wallace, Raison, & Schwartz, 2012). While research regarding mindfulness curricula specifically designed for special education is still in its infancy, extensive studies on mindfulness to date demonstrate that the practice can be a powerful tool in building a happier, less stressful future for all children, including those with developmental disabilities, and their parents.

A Definition of Mindfulness
 Core Concepts

            Mindfulness, as a concept, begins with awareness and attention, and can be defined as attending to the present moment and observing it without judgment (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  Being fully conscious of the present moment, accepting both the moment and the emotions it arouses, and acknowledging one’s feelings non-judgmentally are important facets of mindfulness.  Mindfulness allows the practitioner to react to situations in a calmer and more peaceful way, less dependent upon emotions, and more in harmony with the situation at hand (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freeman, 2006).  Mindfulness has a component of radical acceptance, which means the complete and total acceptance of things as they truly are, not as the individual wishes them to be (Singh et al, 2010a). It is important to note that while mindfulness shares similarities with cognitive-based therapies (CBT), it is distinct in that CBT seeks to intentionally change thought patterns and related emotional responses while mindfulness is designed to change a person’s relationship to an observed experience without trying to control or revise thoughts and emotions because trying to control thoughts and emotions can lead to greater distress (Metz et al., 2013). The practice of mindfulness meditation has its roots in contemplative Buddhism but can be used as a strictly secular application divorced from religious dogma (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  To be effective, mindfulness skills must be practiced regularly over time, as it is a way of experiencing the present moment that does not occur naturally.

Mindfulness as an Intervention Strategy at Home

Children with developmental disabilities comprise approximately 13% of the U.S. school age population, and most of them receive some type of special education services (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014).  Additionally, nearly 13% to 30% of these special needs children have comorbid behavioral problems (Singh et al., 2007b).  The needs of these children do not stop once they leave the school grounds.  They go home at the end of their school day to parents who are quite often tired, stressed, and incapable of reacting to behavioral problems with patience and thoughtfulness.  Responding with empathy and compassion to behavioral situations and emotional needs necessitates a level of attention, calmness, and flexibility that many parents of children with special needs are unable to summon at the end of the day (Benn, Akiva, & Arel, 2012). 
Research has shown that parents of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities are subjected to an elevated level of chronic emotional strain and anxiety when compared to parents of children who do not have developmental disabilities (Singh et al., 2007b).  Additional research has found children’s behavior problems, more so than their level of cognitive functioning, have a substantial effect upon parental stress (Baker et al., 2003).  Negative and maladaptive behaviors increase parental stress, each component building upon the other.  This suggests a transactional relationship between parents and children (Neece, Green, & Baker, 2012).  Both parent and child have a significant influence upon each other’s behavior (Singh et al., 2007b).            
An intervention that has been particularly successful with individuals suffering from anxiety and stress is mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  Mindfulness, as a practice, also aids in supporting emotional health (Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freeman, 2006).  Training in mindfulness teaches parents to focus on one thing at a time (Singh et al., 2006).  It enables parents to be in the precise moment where they currently reside, instead of focusing on the past, when they are dealing with their child’s maladaptive behaviors.  It can have a transformational effect upon the lives of its practitioners and those they interact with (Singh et al., 2010b).  Mindfulness can be a valuable tool in managing the stress of parents of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities, and as a result, in reducing problem behaviors in their children in the present, and can give children the tools they need to help themselves in the future.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Parent Training
Research on mindfulness intervention strategies for parents has focused on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training and Mindfulness-Based Parent Training (MBPT) (Dumas, 2005).  For over three decades, MBSR has been used to treat anxiety, stress, and depression. MBSR has also been used to help patients deal with chronic pain and illness. Participants are taught mindful breathing techniques and body awareness, along with stretching. They are then taught how to incorporate these skills into everyday life to help reduce stress, pain, and depression (Felver et al., 2013). The effectiveness of MBSR has been established as an evidence-based practice and MBSR instruction is offered by medical centers all across the United States (Felver et al., 2013).
Mindfulness-Based Parent Training (MBPT) is a program that has applications more directly related to parenting.  It teaches mindfulness within the context of everyday events, training parents to view both their behavior and their child’s behavior in an open-minded way (Dumas, 2005).  This allows parents to observe the activation of their negative emotions but not react to them, which allows them to develop parenting objectives that are facilitated by specific behavioral plans (Dumas, 2005).  MBPT uses a three-pronged approach: facilitative listening, distancing, and motivated action plans.  Facilitative listening consists of parents sharing concerns and experiences with a clinician, and receiving nonjudgmental acceptance in return.  Distancing teaches parents to separate themselves from practicing unhealthy patterns of negative feelings and thoughts, and also to recognize that they are not their thoughts, that their thoughts are just one part of who they are.  Motivated action plans assist parents with planning out how to reach their behavior goals with their children (Dumas, 2005).
Outcomes of Parental Mindfulness Training Upon Children
            It appears that it is possible for parents to change the externalizing behavior of their children with developmental disabilities simply by changing their own behavior, however most behavioral interventions have focused purely upon managing the child’s conduct and behavior.  Mindful parenting focuses on first changing parental behavior and, as a result, the nature of interactions with the child, which in turn, influences the child’s behavior (Singh et al., 2006).  Parents taught MBSR over a period of 8 weeks, beginning with the concepts of mindfulness and mindfulness exercises and ending with group discussions with other parents, not only experienced dramatic decreases in stress and depression but they also reported meaningful improvement in their general satisfaction with life.  Researchers found that mindfulness can aid parents in slowing down to listen to their children and to be less reactive.  This calm and serene reaction on behalf of the parent has a definite positive influence upon the child (Neece, 2014).
 Research conducted with mothers of children diagnosed with autism found that maladaptive behaviors, such as aggression, non-compliance, and self-injury, were significantly decreased when mothers were practicing mindfulness (Singh et al., 2006).  In a Virginia-based study, these mothers were taught MBPT mindfulness training from homecare providers over a period of 12 weeks, and both their children’s behavior and their own parenting satisfaction levels were measured.  Researchers found a considerable spill over effect from the mindfulness training.  Not only did the externalizing behaviors of their children decrease, the mothers had more positive feelings about their parenting, their communication, and their relationship with their autistic children.  The focus of the mothers moved from trying to control or change the behavior of their autistic children toward a more accepting and non-judgmental attitude that in turn, actually changed the behavior of the child (Singh et al., 2006).
            In a similar study, when mothers of children with autism were instructed in mindfulness skills, not only did the previous self-injurious, noncompliant, and aggressive behaviors of the autistic children decrease, their interactions with other family members and siblings became more positive (Singh et al., 2007b).  After 12 weeks of mindfulness training, mothers rated their satisfaction with parenting as more positive, and their children’s maladaptive behaviors diminished or ceased altogether.  The children were not taught any mindfulness techniques, yet the negative interactions with their siblings declined and their positive interactions increased. 
The effects of mindfulness training are even more salient when the child is taught the technique, either at the same time as the parent or in subsequent trainings.  Non-compliance is often an issue with children who have been diagnosed with ADHD (Singh et al., 2010b).  Research has revealed that mindfulness training for children with ADHD, without any specific focus on self-management of ADHD, not only increased their compliance to their mother’s requests, it also changed the quality of the interactions between the child and their mothers.  The interactions were regarded in a much more positive light, and the children stated that their mothers did not yell at them anymore and were much more calm with them (Singh et al., 2010b).  The children reported feeling that their mothers listened to them without judgment and, by the end of the study, both the children and the mothers had significantly higher ratings of satisfaction in their communication with each other.

Mindfulness as an Intervention Strategy at School

Mindful Schools  
The success of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) in medicine and in the home via MBSR motivated educators to seek ways to bring mindfulness into the classroom. The first large-scale mindfulness-based intervention in education was designed and implemented in 2007 by the Oakland-based non-profit Mindful Schools, which modeled its curriculum after MBSR while making its lessons more simple and concrete, and therefore more appropriate for K-6 elementary school children than the adult-centric MBSR program. The initial Mindful Schools curriculum, implemented in schools between 2007 and 2013, was comprised of 15 short lessons lasting an average of 15-20 minutes (4 hours total) delivered at school sites by experienced meditation practitioners over two-month periods. Table 2, extracted from a UC Davis Department of Psychology study conducted in partnership with Mindful Schools, summarizes each of the 15 lessons in its curriculum: Mindful Bodies & Listening, Mindfulness of Breathing, Heartfulness (Kind Thoughts), Body Awareness, Mindfulness of Breathing, Generosity, Mindfulness of Thought, Caring on the Playground, Mindfulness of Emotions, Slow Motion, Gratitude, Mindful Walking, Mindful Eating and Mindful Test Taking (Black & Fernando, 2013). A study conducted in 2011-12 in East Bay elementary schools validated this curriculum, documenting significant improvement among low-income urban students in all four target development categories: mental, emotional, social and physical (Black & Fernando, 2013). Most notable was the increase in attention span by more than double and improved empathy and self-care among violence-exposed youth (Black & Fernando, 2013). As a result, Mindful Schools’ curriculum was used as the basis for many other education-based MBIs such as the Canadian in-schools program MindUp. (Schonert-Reichl, et al., 2015).

Meditation on the Soles of the Feet
            Research has been conducted with adolescents diagnosed with different developmental disabilities regarding the effects of teaching a specific mindfulness program, Meditation on the Soles of the Feet (SoF). SoF instruction is effective in teaching adolescents with developmental and intellectual disabilities to manage their own aggression, instead of relying on external cues. (Singh et al., 2011b). Adolescents were taught to direct their attention to a neutral area of their body, the soles of their feet, when they were in a situation that could trigger aggression. A group of three adolescents with autism were taught SoF during a 17 week period, after which the rates of aggression were reported at half the previous rate. At a four-year follow up, there had been no instances of aggression at all (Singh et al., 2011b).
            A parallel study conducted with three adolescents with autism who were taught SoF had similar results (Singh et al., 2011a). After learning to self manage their aggression by changing their focus to the soles of their feet, these adolescents were able to reduce reported episodes of aggression to one episode a year over a period of three years. SoF has also been proven to help adolescents with psychiatric disorders, such as conduct disorder, to self manage their aggressive behavior (Singh et al., 2007a). Self management is crucial as adolescents grow into adulthood, move out into the community, and strive to become independent.
Mindfulness Training For General Education Students
Low-income urban youth are subjected to severe environmental challenges such as violence and substance abuse that can cause chronic stress. Long-term childhood adversity can trigger neurobiological changes in brain development, impairing cognitive and emotional regulation which can cause rumination and depression and set students on a path of low academic achievement and negative social outcomes (Mendelson et al., 2010).  Urban schools that are most in need of psychological supports for their students are least likely to have the funds to provide that support. The low-cost and low-time investment of MBIs and their proven effectiveness in creating healthy changes in brain development, therefore, makes them ideal intervention strategies for education (Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015). Most critically, mindfulness training reduces the activity of the amygdala, the brain center that regulates the fight-or-flight response that when chronically active, reduces the ability to concentrate and limits centers of the brain that control learning and sound judgment (Siegel, 2007). More recent chronic academic stress among students in wealthier school districts is yielding mental, physical, and academic problems akin to their low-income peers. Today 21% percent of all 13 to 18 year olds in the United States have been diagnosed with a severe disorder, the most common being ADHD, conduct disorders, anxiety, and depression (Zenner et al., 2014).
Mindful School identifies three major areas of benefit regarding mindfulness training in education: cognitive outcomes such as attention span and focus, social emotional skills like emotional regulation, good behavior in schools, empathy, social skills and a healthy perspective and finally a high level of well-being, created by reduced test anxiety, reduced stress, reduced post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms and reduced depression. Mindfulness training’s effectiveness in increasing student attention span also reduces the need for behavior management in the classroom (Black & Fernando, 2013: Baijal, Jha, Kiyonaga, Singh, & Srinivasan, 2011).
Additional benefits are felt across the socio-economic spectrum and across all grade levels. A 12-week mindfulness intervention in Baltimore elementary schools was found to reduce stress, anxiety, emotional, and behavioral reactivity while improving self-awareness and sleep among inner-city youth (Mendelson et al., 2010). In another Baltimore study, 350 low-income 5th-8th grade students demonstrated significantly lower levels of depression, negative emotion, self-hostility, and PTSD symptoms after taking an 8-week MBSR program (Sibinga, Webb, Ghazarian, & Ellen, 2016). Another MBSR-based program in Pennsylvania Learning to BREATHE found statistically lower stress levels and higher levels of emotional regulation among the 216 general education high school students who completed its 4.5-hour, 6-part program (Metz et al., 2013). One hundred 4th and 5th graders enrolled in the Canadian mindfulness-based social and emotional learning (SEL) program MindUp demonstrated improved cognitive control and stress-response physiology, greater empathy, perspective, emotional control, optimism and peer acceptance as well as decreased depression and peer aggression (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015).

Reflection on Mindfulness
            A 2014 review and meta-analysis summarizing the findings of 24 different mindfulness studies found that mindfulness training is an effective intervention strategy in schools but has a stronger effect when it is accompanied by extended mindfulness practice at home (Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014). When taught mindfulness techniques as an adolescent, students with developmental disabilities are better equipped to control and manage their behavior in adulthood. If their parents have been practicing mindfulness from early on in their lives, there will be an even stronger foundation for nonjudgmental acceptance, gratitude, and positive behaviors that are crucial for happiness and a good quality of life as an adult with developmental disabilities. Reducing negative behaviors is critical for full integration into a community and for positive rapport with community services workers (Singh et al., 2013). Providing mindfulness as a support for students and their families can significantly increase self-regulation, optimism, and moral reasoning and increased odds of becoming smarter, happier, and more caring citizens (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015; Zenner, Herrnleben-Kurz, & Walach, 2014). 
 The focus of mindfulness is the changing of one’s thoughts and behavior. This depth of change requires dedication and practice (Singh et al., 2004).  Viewing and experiencing behavior through a lens of neutrality, rather than labeling it as good or bad, allows parents of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities to practice a calm acceptance of the present moment (Singh et al., 2006).  The focus of radical acceptance requires not only the initial mindfulness training, but also regular daily practice.  Just as an athlete must practice to keep their skills and performance levels high, the practice of being mindful requires commitment and devotion in order to be effective (Singh et al., 2006).
            In other words, mindfulness works best when the practitioner uses it regularly and purposefully.  In order to reap the benefits of mindfulness, parents and children with developmental disabilities  need to make a conscious effort to incorporate the practice into their daily lives (Singh et al., 2006).  Mindfulness is not effective if the practitioner decides not to make use of it or to only use it sparingly.  Ongoing practice is the key to successful change (Singh et al., 2010b).
When parents receive a diagnosis of a developmental disability for their child, some form of mindfulness training should be offered to them alongside of therapies prescribed for the child.  Parents should be informed about the effectiveness of mindfulness for the reduction of stress and anxiety and the reciprocal relationship between parental stress and child behavior.  Using mindfulness as a strategy would prevent parents of developmentally disabled children from being so heavily afflicted by stress from the beginning of the child’s diagnosis.  This could conceivably stave off problem behaviors by children that are a reaction to stress in the home, and form a solid foundation for the self-management of aggressive behaviors for these children later on in life.

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