Being young, here, now

Boston Globe: BARRE – Nestled in the woods of this small town, 96 young adults recently gathered at a quiet mansion for a weeklong sojourn, away from buzzing cellphones, humming iPods, and the myriad callings of human and cyber civilizations.

Keeping even the most basic forms of communication, like speaking and writing, to a minimum, they meditated in silence, practicing vipassana, or insight meditation, an ancient Buddhist technique that involves focusing one’s attention on the present, on the breath, mind, and body. Read more here.

“It was just meditate, eat, sleep,’’ said Kestrel Slocombe, 19, a student at Vermont’s Bennington College who spends much of her time rushing to class, worrying about a novel she’s writing, and painstakingly planning her days, sometimes weeks in advance.

“It was almost like being a child, she said. “You didn’t have to put together a puzzle of a complicated day.’’

At a time when homework or job pressures and the likes of Facebook and Twitter compete for attention throughout the day, meditation groups say an increasing number of young adults are signing up for retreats and classes, seeking a temporary escape, a haven to reconnect with their thoughts.

“Young people are much more stressed out than people 20, 30 years ago,’’ said Rebecca Bradshaw, one of the retreat leaders who also works as a psychotherapist. “We have a fast-paced and alienating culture.’’

Since the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist nonprofit, introduced the retreat specifically for 18- to 32-year-olds in 2004, the number of young adults attending to practice vipassana has steadily risen, said Bob Agoglia, the organization’s executive director.

This year’s retreat attracted more applicants than ever from 16 states, he said, and for the first time the group had to turn away more than a dozen applicants.

The Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, a nonresidential nonprofit, has also seen a stream of curious young adults at its weekly vipassana, or “mindfulness,’’ meditation sessions for beginners, said Peggy Barnes Lenart, the center’s operations coordinator.

Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy, a community for agnostics, atheists, and the nonreligious, started a free, open-to-all group this year that practices different forms of meditation, including Buddhist and Quaker, said Zachary Alexander, 26, the group’s founder. Half of its nearly 30 members are under 32, he said.

“It’s something that people find can be a break from their stressful lives,’’ said Alexander, who considers himself an atheist.

“It can be something that leads to personal insight.’’

While traditional Quaker meditation emphasizes hearing divine messages, the humanist meditators focus on impulses toward love and truth, and try to accept the events of their lives to gain greater inner calm, said Alexander, a lab administrator at the Harvard Center for Brain Science.

Joshua Beckmann, 28, of Allston, who practices insight meditation, said he enjoys the flexibility Buddhist teachings provide.

“No one’s asking me to profess anything or asking me to call myself Buddhist,’’ said Beckmann, a public health researcher at Boston University who was raised Catholic. “I really appreciate the opportunity to explore.’’

The benefits of meditation, supported by scientific research, might attract younger populations, according to Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital who conducts meditation research.

Lazar said her team recently studied the brains of about 30 adults – some as young as 18 – before and after they underwent an eight-week insight meditation course.

The results showed that in most participants, the portion of the brain that responds to fear, anger, and stress – the amygdala – became smaller. In animals, the amygdala has been shown to get larger in stressful situations, Lazar said.

About a year ago, the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness at MIT Medical began offering stress-reduction classes that incorporate meditation, said Lauren Mayhew, a program manager at the center.

“A lot of people have a hard time going from their frenetic lives to sitting still,’’ Mayhew said, noting that the classes, discounted for students, tend to fill up on the first day.

“The really crucial age is mid- to late-20s,’’ she said.

“That’s when students wake up and realize that they are mortal beings and that their bodies are affected by stress.’’

Some are drawn to meditation out of sheer curiosity about how their lives might change both during and after meditation.

Angela Borges, 26, a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Boston College, turned to insight meditation about two months ago, though she was skeptical of its tangible benefits.

Many have told her she looks much happier, she said.

“I actually have a sense of empowerment,’’ she said.

“I’m running around crazy but there’s just a little part of my attention . . . that sort of says ‘Look what’s happening, notice how I’m living.’ It’s just opened up this new way of being.’’

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School sees quiet gains as its students meditate

Arizona Daily Star: For 10 to 20 minutes twice a day, some students and teachers at alternative education programs in the Tucson Unified School District close their eyes and shush their minds.

There are no chants or incense sticks or burning candles, although some will use a mantra — a phrase repeated over and over to themselves — to help slow their thoughts.

Despite its simplicity, the practitioners report they’re seeing significant benefits from Transcendental Meditation, the trademarked technique created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi more than 50 years ago.

Priscilla Ramos, an 18-year-old senior at Project MORE High School, said she was only passing some classes before. Now, even though she’s carrying 10 classes in an attempt to graduate on time, she’s focused and making A’s and B’s.

Favian Marquez, a 17-year-old at MORE, said he used to “blow up really fast.” Last month, some guy picked a fight with him on the bus, he said, shoving him and ultimately punching him in the face. “I got mad, but I controlled myself. I just said, ‘It isn’t worth it.’ It’s just helped me with my anger a lot.”

David Tran, 16, said he immediately felt the calming effects after his first session, even though he’d scoffed at it beforehand. Even his mother noticed he was less anxious and sleeping better, he said; she even asked him if he was feverish.

The director of the district’s alternative education department, Robert Mackay, acknowledges it all sounded a bit far-fetched to him when a teacher came back from a conference talking it up.

Mackay said the students who come to him often are troubled, some with severe family and academic issues. In some cases, his programs are their last hope of graduating.

“I had grave doubts because I had never seen some of these kids ever stop moving or talking. I expected that we’d have a 15-minute discussion and that would be it,” he said.

Instead, he heard the pitch, including testimonials from schools around the nation using it with populations no less difficult than his.
Mackay went through the training first in fall 2006, along with his teachers. His blood pressure dropped so much that it was the equivalent of what he would see with a prescription pill. His teachers have been known to ask before launching into a discussion if he’s done his meditation for the day — and if the answer is no, will postpone the discussion for another time.

As for the students, he found them less aggressive, less anxious, even happier. And they didn’t go right back into wild mode after it was over, either.

The program was offered as an elective last year, and 40 MORE students signed up. This year, because of a new focus on academics, it can’t be fit into the school day, but there are still more than 20 students who regularly come before and after school to meditate. “That’s saying something,” Mackay said. “It’s hard to keep a kid here. When the bill rings, you almost have to get out of the way.”

Meditation also is being offered as an elective at the Museum School for the Visual Arts, with about 20 students enrolled.

In January, the Drake Alternative Middle School will begin the program schoolwide, and staffs at the TeenAge Parent School and the Broadway Bridge alternative schools are both getting training.

Dynah Oviedo Lim, a TUSD number-cruncher, said preliminary achievement results with only one year of data are inconclusive. But some of the findings on its social aspects are encouraging, she said. The meditators began the year with higher anxiety than a control group of students but ended with lower anxiety. Their happiness increased from mildly happy to pretty happy, while the control group reported no change in happiness levels. They also reported higher self-esteem.

The program is voluntary. Students who don’t want to participate can spend quiet time doing something else.

And it’s free to the district, which has received about $150,000 in grants from the David Lynch Foundation. Lynch, a director known for his unconventional work, which includes the “Twin Peaks” television series, has credited the practice with transforming his own life and career, and has donated millions to share it with students nationwide.

Research studies, including some funded by the National Institutes of Health, have linked meditation with a host of benefits, including stronger creativity, better academic performance and reduced stress.

But some critics, such as Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, have expressed concern about the practice, saying it’s rooted in ancient Eastern religious traditions.

“It has no place in public schools,” Lynn said. “There are other meditation exercises that schools could use that do not have this connection to a religious group, but no one’s coming and promoting them to educators,” he said.

“The risk is that it helps to promote one religious philosophy over others. In the long run, this is just a bad idea.”

Denise Denniston Gerace, who is working with TUSD on the training, said there is a growing awareness of alternative paths to mental and physical wellness. But even with Eastern practices such as yoga taking off in this country, some misperceptions linger. And the big one, she said, is that Transcendental Meditation is religious-based.

“It’s a mechanical technique. The idea that it’s religious is left over from 50 years ago, when it was possible to disregard contributions from somewhere else by simply saying it must be a religious practice,” she said.

On occasion, the critics win. Among the more high-profile cases: In 2006, parents at Terra Linda High School in California protested plans for the program and funding was withdrawn.

Mackay said he hasn’t received any complaints from parents, although a few have called with questions and some have asked for training themselves.

Brisa Gutierrez can just draw on what she’s seen in her own classroom.

In her fourth year of teaching English and social studies at MORE, Gutierrez tells of one student who was troublesome for years. He was unruly and disruptive. His grades were up and down. “He was out of control, actually,” she said.

After he began meditation, she said, “not only did I see a radical change in his behavior, but his academic performance shot up. We’re talking day and night.”

The boy graduated and is now employed full time.

“This should be in schools across the nation,” Gutierrez said, adding that many of her more vulnerable students are bombarded in their neighborhoods with violence and drugs.

“This just gives them a chance to quiet the brain. And just for me, anecdotally, it’s amazing to see what’s happening as a result.”

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Much dispute about nothing

Newsweek: Transcendental meditation is meant to make kids calmer, happier. But for some parents, it’s having the opposite effect. A small but growing movement is bringing Transcendental Meditation into more U.S. schools as a stress-buster for America’s overwhelmed kids. However, critics believe that TM is a repackaged Eastern religious philosophy that should not be infiltrating public schools. Read more here.

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Zen toolbox offers path to peace for prisoners

Seattle Post Intelligencer: Dow Gordon works for the Freedom Project, a Seattle nonprofit that helps prisoners change their lives. Using a Zen toolbox — meditation, mindfulness and nonviolent communication, Gordon helps society’s “throwaways” realize their potential inner wealth. The approach is making such a difference that top state administrators awarded Gordon the Volunteer of the Year award for his work at Monroe Correctional Complex. He’s one of the first — if not the first — ex-felon to receive that honor. Read more here.

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Conference promotes meditation in school (The Boston Globe)

Boston Globe To sit quietly in a deep rest for 20 minutes at the start and end of the school day allows the brain to tap into a reservoir of energy and intelligence.

Twenty minutes of deep breathing and silence twice daily can help boost students’ grades, improve their social skills, and ignite their creativity.

That’s the message Transcendental Meditation practitioners brought to more than 100 Boston-area educators yesterday during a three-hour conference on how to help students overwhelmed by social pressures and the stress of getting into college.

The concept excited many attendees, who took notes intently and walked out chatting animatedly about how they might introduce the program to parents and students.

”It sounds very powerful,” said Jose A. Solis, a counselor at Madison Park Technical-Vocational High School in Boston. ”I think it could work.”

Donald Brown, principal of Roxbury Charter High Public School, said he was already considering creating a pilot meditation program for ninth-graders.

”I had never heard of it before this,” he said. ”We all talk about how we want to create an environment conducive to learning. This sounds like this is it.”

Maryalice Foley, assistant principal of B. F. Butler Middle School of Technology in Lowell, said the school had begun experimenting with different ways to reduce student stress this year over of the rise of gang violence.

”Anything that can bring cohesiveness to the brain, that can calm them down, is good,” she said.

She said she thought some parents might be concerned about the unusualness of the practice.

”I don’t know if we would immediately call it Transcendental Meditation,” she said.

Organized by the New England Committee for Stress-Free Schools, the nonprofit group of educators and meditation practitioners has launched a two-week tour across the region to promote the benefits of meditation. In the past week, they made stops in Fairfield, Conn., and Providence.

”There’s an exorbitant amount of pressure on kids today,” said G. Anthony Ryan, director of the Massachusetts Committee for Stress-Free Schools, a meditation group, before the conference began. ”Bullying, academic problems, drug use, this is a mechanism to combat all that.” Ryan is assistant superintendent of the Hampshire Regional School District in Western Massachusetts.

During yesterday’s conference at the Harvard Club, educators heard testimonies from principals in Detroit and Washington, D.C., who said they had successfully introduced meditation in their schools and neurology specialists who said meditation stimulated the brain.

Transcendental Meditation is practiced in at least 15 schools nationally, according to the committee. Supporters believe the program, which requires participants to sit quietly in a deep rest for 20 minutes at the start and at the end of the school day, allows the brain to tap into a reservoir of energy and intelligence.

The Transcendental Meditation Program is a nonreligious practice started by the East Indian spiritual leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Its most famous students include the Beatles, who made the practice popular in the late 1960s.

At the conference, 17-year-old Owen Stowe said he loved art, but after transferring from a school that used meditation to Buckingham Browne & Nichols private school in Cambridge, he felt too stressed out to draw.

Three years ago, Stowe decided to return to the Maharishi School, a private school in Fairfield, Iowa, and live with family friends. The school encourages students to meditate twice a day.

Since then, the high school junior says he is so inspired he can’t stop doodling in class. ”I’m a whole lot happier,” he said.

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Meditation Benefits Schoolchildren, Study Finds

A Medical College of Georgia pilot study using meditation to help lower blood pressure in teens was so successful that the project has been extended to five high schools and a middle school.

Dr. Vernon Barnes, a physiologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute with over 30 years of experience in teaching and applying meditation techniques, conducted the pilot five years ago, teaching meditation to students with high-normal blood pressure at a Richmond County high school.

The results, published in a 1999 edition of Psychosomatic Medicine, cited lower blood pressure and other improvements among participants. The success spurred the GPI to expand the project to include 156 high school students and 80 middle school students in Richmond County. The study is funded by the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health.

For the expanded study, all students in the six participating schools were tested for high-normal blood pressure. Half of those with the condition–a leading risk factor for hypertension–were invited to join in daily 10- to 15-minute meditation classes. The other half, a control group, received health education to lower blood pressure but no meditation training. The students who received meditation training also were instructed to meditate at home each evening.

“Blood pressure typically goes up with age, and the blood pressure of the control group did go up,” Dr. Barnes said. “The blood pressure of the meditation group went down.”

The blood pressure was tested during both normal conditions and stressful conditions, such as a virtual-reality driving simulation and a stressful interview. The improvements of the meditation group held up in all conditions, Dr. Barnes said. Also tested were other indicators of cardiac health, such as the volume of blood pumped from the heart with every beat… Read the rest of the article…

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