young people

Secular prayer flags

A few days ago I gave a talk at a high school about 40 minutes from my house. Some of the students had made secular “prayer flags,” which had the purpose of expressing their positive thoughts and sending them out into the world.

The prayer flags had been hung where they would brighten up a rather unattractive central courtyard, which now contained a “ger” (Tibetan yurt), designed (I think) in the geometry class. You can just see the ger in the background of the second photograph.

Some of the images were intriguing, and I wish I’d been able to talk more with individual students to discover more about what they were trying to communicate.

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On prayer flags and changing the world

An address I’m scheduled to give today at a high school in New Hampshire, where the students have been making secular prayer flags, in order to “send their positive thoughts into the world.”

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank you for having me. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been putting your positive thoughts on flags and sending them out into the universe. Of course I don’t believe that your thoughts will literally be sent out on the wind, but I see great significance in what you’re doing.

To print your positive thoughts on fabric you have, of course, to have had a positive thought. And that in itself is a very significant thing to do.

How many people consciously cultivate positive thoughts? I suspect it’s not many. Most of our thinking is “accidental” and most of it is negative.

The world is direly in need of positive thinking. It’s even more in need of compassion and clarity.

The world is very much in need of idealism.

Now to some people the word “idealism” is a slur, an insult. Idealists are seen as being disconnected from reality. They’re seen as dreamers. They’re seen as impractical. They’re seen as naive.

But to me, idealism is a beautiful thing. To have a meaningful life, we have to have goals that go beyond the mere satisfying of our selfish desires.

Of course some idealists are indeed dreamers. Some idealists are impractical, and naive. But the best idealists are practical, grounded, and wise people. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an idealist. He was a dreamer. He had a dream. He dreamt of course of ending racial segregation, and had much success in turning his dream into reality.

But Dr King didn’t stop at just having a dream. He attempted to live his dream. And in doing so he put himself in the way of angry mobs, policemen’s batons, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. And his actions, and those of the many courageous people who stood by him, changed this country for ever.

And lest we forget, in the year before Dr. King’s murder, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in 15 states. At the time of our current president’s birth, in 1961, there were over 20 states in which his parents could not legally be married.

There has been much progress made since those days — our current president is after all a black man — but there is much still to be done. We still need our practical dreamers. We need them more than ever.

King dreamed of ending racial segregation, but he also dreamed of ending poverty, and one of the reasons he opposed the war in Vietnam was because it diverted funds from social welfare projects.

And in the field of poverty we especially need practical dreamers. The number of people living in poverty in the United States is higher now than it was at the time of King’s death. Of course the population of the country is higher too, but the percentage of the population living in poverty was lower at the time of King’s murder than in almost every year since then, and it was lower than it is today. Yes, a greater percent of the US population lives in poverty than in 1968.

And in fact, since the recession of 2008, the poverty rate in the US has been rising dramatically.

Here are the figures for the last three years for which we have figures:

2008 39.8 million
2009 43.6 million
2010 46.2 million

2011 is almost certain to be worse.

The United States now creates more than twice as much wealth per head of population as it did in 1968, the year of Dr. King’s murder. The country is more than twice as wealthy as it was when King campaigned against poverty, and yet there are more people living below the poverty line than in his lifetime.

(In case you’re wondering where all the wealth our country has been creating has gone, roughly 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the richest 5 percent of households.)

We’ve become a more unequal society since King had his dream of ending poverty.

So on the one hand we have a black president, which I think would have stunned Dr. King in a positive sense. But on the other we have seen the problem of poverty worsen, which I think would have found not only shocking, but incomprehensible.

I mention all this because I think it’s obvious that we need more practical dreamers.

Of course if your dream is simply to be part of the richest 5%, then I wish you well.

I want to say a bit more about so-called “prayer flags.” It’s only in the west that we call these prayer flags. In Tibet, where the tradition originated, they’re called Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all beings. They are not intended to send prayers to heaven, but to symbolize the sending of good wishes into the world, much as you have been doing.

But there’s an important aspect of prayer flags that’s often overlooked. They are impermanent. They are hung out in the elements, exposed to harsh sunlight, constantly torn at by the wind, frozen, thawed, and soaked in the rain. The quickly become tattered rags. Eventually, in order to prevent them becoming litter, they are taken down and burned.

The flags — the Dar Cho — return to the elements from which they came.

And this reminds me of two things. The first is to do with the burning of the Dar Cho. Buddhists are fond of burning incense, and besides the fact that incense usually smells nice, it has a symbolic function.

When you light a stick of incense in a meditation room, the smoke doesn’t stay within the room. It drifts out, and circulates around the world. It never stops. It just keeps on going forever.

And the symbolism of this is to do with what goes on in a meditation room. There are many things that people can be doing when they’re sitting there with their eyes closed. But one of the things they do is to cultivate positive thoughts. They cultivate love, and compassion, and kindness, and patience. And here’s where the symbolism comes in. When people cultivate kindness, and compassion, and patience, those qualities don’t stay in the meditation room any more than the incense smoke does. The positive emotion that’s developed has an effect on the world.

We can even measure this. It has in fact been measured by psychologists, not specifically in relation to meditation, but more generally in relation to positive emotion. When a person is emotionally positive, this affects the people they’re in contact with. And they have an effect on those that they in turn are in contact with. And so on.

In fact psychologists have been able to measure the effects of emotionally positive people radiating out to their friend’s friend’s friends. It’s actually measurable. Of course the effect, just like the incense smoke, never stops. It permeates the entire world. But just as you can no longer smell the perfume of the incense once you’re a certain distance away, to the effect of a positive person becomes more dilute as it moves out into the world around them.

This is true for negative emotions as well, by the way. Which is all the more reason that we need to work at bringing more compassion into the world.

So there’s something to think about. The positive thoughts you’ve been cultivating will quite literally affect the entire world.

By cultivating the positive thoughts you’ve printed on these Dar Cho, you’ve become more emotionally positive. And while the writing on these flags will not literally waft on the breeze out into the world, your concerns for the world around you will affect the people you know, and the people those people know, and so on. There is no end to it.

The other thing I wanted to mention about prayer flags is that they symbolize impermanence. Just as they are impermanent, so are we. Prayer flags remind us the unavoidability of death. In fact everything we see reminds us of impermanence, although we often don’t want to think about it.

We generally assume that thinking about death is a bummer. That it’ll bring us down. That it’ll depress us.

But that’s not actually the case. Again this has been studied. When we fully accept that we will die, we feel challenged to make something of our lives. There’s a saying, “Very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

And it’s true. When people are dying, they mostly wish two things. They wish they’d paid more attention to having a joyful life. And they wish they’d loved more. Take it from the dying: love and joy are the two most important things in life.

People who consciously think about death are more likely to embrace life, and to love more.

Just take a minute to picture yourself on your deathbed. If you want to avoid having regrets about how you spent your life, start right now. Think about what kind of life would be the most meaningful for you. Become a practical dreamer.

And take another moment, right now, to look at someone standing next to you. The person standing next to you will die soon. We’ll all die soon. It might not seem like it from your perspective, right now, as teenagers, but again, very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I hadn’t lived as long.

As you look at the person next to you, aware of the fact that they’ll die soon, you might find your heart opening a little. You might feel a bit more tenderness and respect, and kindness. Try and remember that. And try and remember that in geological time scales, the life of a human being is briefer than the life of a prayer flag is to us.

A human life isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to make a difference in other human lives.

So in conclusion, I’d encourage you to take away the following thoughts:

  • The world needs practical dreamers. In some ways things have gotten better, but in other ways they’re no better than they were — or are worse — than when your grandparents were your age.
  • Don’t let your thinking be accidental. Consciously think. Consciously cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions of love and compassion.
  • You can have an effect. In fact you do have an effect. Your inspiration, your idealism, your positive emotions, will change our society for the better. It’s measurable.
  • And lastly, think about the fact that you’re going to die. Think about the fact that everyone you know is going to die. Let an awareness of our impermanence enrich your life. Live so that you’ll have no regrets on your deathbed. Embrace life. Live well. Love well. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
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Ex-convict teaches yoga to help calm violence in Mexico’s prisons

Lauren Villagran: Teenage boys shuffle into a cramped room. Wearing the same navy blue sweatpants and white undershirts, they sit cross-legged on yoga mats laid out on the floor. Thick scars on forearms and biceps are apparent as they stretch their hands to their knees and shut their eyes.

Yoga instructor – and ex-convict – Fredy Díaz Arista begins guiding a meditation aimed at relaxing the group of 10 young offenders. Among them and their peers, about 300 youth in this Mexico City jail, the crimes range from drug abuse to robbery, assault, and murder.

“How long can you stand yourselves with your…

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With a rebel “om”

Hannah Guzik: Those who stumble into ZanZilla yoga studio Tuesday night might think a punk rock concert’s about to start. But instead of head-banging to music, the tattooed will sit and quietly meditate.

They’re dharma punx, and they’re making meditation hip for Generation X.

“Unlike most Buddhist groups, where you’re likely to see gray hair and some kind of Indian costume, at these meditations you’re much more likely to see tattoos, piercings, shaved heads and dyed hair,” said Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx: A Memoir. “It’s definitely a modern American youth movement.”

Levine, who started the movement when his…

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Yoga helps improve asthma symptoms

Ani, The Times Of India: A new study has suggested that meditation and yoga can be ‘helpful’ in improving asthma in urban adolescents.

A new study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) shows that urban adolescents with asthma may experience worse outcomes when not using spiritual coping and often use complementary and alternative medicine, or integrative medicine, like prayer or relaxation, to manage symptoms.

These findings by researchers could help physicians and other providers gain insight into additional ways to help pediatric populations self-manage chronic illnesses.

The study, led by Sian Cotton, assistant professor in the department of family and community medicine, looked at urban adolescents dealing with asthma and uncovered the ways that they were both coping with their illness as well as ways coping methods affected their mental and physical health outcomes.

In the spiritual struggles analyses, outcome variables included anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as quality of life. Researchers then determined the association Read the rest of this article…

between spiritual struggles and health outcomes after accounting for age, gender, ethnicity and asthma severity.

“As hypothesized, religious or spiritual coping and secular coping predicted similar amounts of variance in these outcomes, similar to previous findings in adult populations, suggesting that spiritual coping is an important element to consider when caring for adolescents with asthma,” said Cotton.

In the second analysis, the same group of adolescents completed a survey looking at 10 forms of complementary and alternative medicine methods used for symptom management, including prayer, guided imagery, relaxation, meditation, yoga, massage, herbs, vitamins and rubs as well as dietary changes.

“These findings show that this group of chronically ill adolescents is using complementary methods and finding them helpful,” said Cotton.

“Providers should consider discussing the use of complementary or alternative medicine with their patients with asthma to help improve outcomes.”

“These analyses point to findings that will help physicians care not only for patients with asthma but also for those with other chronic illnesses to ensure the best outcomes physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, producing a better quality of life,” added Cotton.

The findings were presented at the National Conference in Pediatric Psychology in San Antonio.

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Yoga, meditation program helps city youths cope with stress

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Kelly Brewington, The Baltimore Sun: Researchers and lay people alike think yoga may help adults reduce stress. The popularity of the practice has surged, and it’s used as therapy for cancer patients and battered women, and as a treatment for back pain and depression.

But even as schools get in on the trend, the effect of the practice on children has not been subject to rigorous study, say researchers at the Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Even less understood is whether yoga can help youths struggling with the stress of urban life.

“Living in an inner-city environment with high crime and high violence, there are just so many kids here who have chronic stress,” said Tamar Mendelson, an assistant professor in the department of mental health at Bloomberg and the study’s lead researcher. “We wanted to really study this and see if this can be helpful for kids exposed to chronic stress and if we can give them some tools for coping.”

They found a 12-week yoga program targeting 97 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Baltimore elementary schools made a difference in students’ overall behavior and their ability to concentrate. They found students who did yoga were less…

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likely to ruminate, the kind of brooding thoughts associated with depression and anxiety that can be a reaction to stress. The findings, which focused on a pilot program that took place in 2008, were published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. One program is still active, and researchers are now applying for federal funding to expand the effort into schools across the city.

Researchers identified four schools, offered four 45-minute yoga classes each week to students at two of them, and used the other two schools as the control group. They gave students questionnaires before and after the study period and followed up with interviews with students and teachers. Schools included in the study were Westside, Samuel F.B. Morse, Alexander Hamilton and North Bend elementaries.

While the study was small and the findings self-reported, researchers believe the findings hold promise.

“Kids in urban environments always have their antennas up for being wary of danger,” said Mark Greenberg, director of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, which does research on promoting healthy development in children. He worked with Hopkins on the study.

“Even though they may act tough, they are often very anxious and nervous about it,” he said. “[Yoga] gives them a space, and a place where they can let that down and understand their own private experience. They don’t need to be wary and careful all the time; they can learn to explore their inner lives.”

Ka’ron Fletcher, 11, said he found yoga challenging when he began classes last fall, but now finds himself using the deep-breathing techniques when he’s struggling to concentrate during science class.

“It’s easy,” he said of yoga. “I just close my eyes and think about the sunrise. I can block all that other stuff out.”

The damaging effects of stress on kids

Without a way to manage it, stress can harm the body, particularly for children, Greenberg said. Recent studies have linked high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, to depression and poor performance in school. Greenberg’s research suggests a link between growing up in poverty and stress in a young child. In a study published in the journal Child Development, he found that children as young as 3 growing up in rural poverty with high stress levels had decreased cognitive abilities.

Stress disrupts a child’s ability to concentrate, he said. “They are not able to harness their thinking skills because they are preoccupied.”

Still, large well-designed studies showing a relationship between yoga and reduced stress are lacking, said Karen Sherman, a principal investigator with the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, who has studied yoga’s impact on chronic back pain.

“Not all studies show that yoga improves the cortisol profile, but some do,” she said. “And from a subjective perspective, many people comment on the relaxing, stress-reducing benefits of yoga. I think that this is the reason that people seek it out.”

While many studies on yoga are limited, there is “intriguing evidence” that it can have a host of health benefits, she said.

To test their theories, Hopkins researchers used a curriculum designed by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit founded in 2002 by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their college buddy, Andy Gonzalez. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, “the traveling yogis” as they called themselves, returned to their poor West Baltimore neighborhood looking for a way to give back.

Yoga was ingrained in the Smith household, where as kids, the brothers would do yoga and meditate before going off to elementary school.

In 2002, the three rounded up some neighborhood toughs and started offering them free classes at Windsor Hills Elementary School. With parents addicted to drugs, in jail and living on the margins, the students were skeptical of yoga, Ali Smith remembered. “We’d get an occasional, ‘Yoga? You mean that little green guy from Star Wars?’

“But it’s funny how they took to it,” he said. “We’re from where they’re from, we look how they look. We make sure that we are presenting yoga to them in a way that they will get it.”

Darrius Douglas, 20, was among that first group introduced to yoga. Where most of his friends were hanging out on corners selling drugs, Douglas was perfecting his Kundalini lotus position — sitting upright, hands grabbing the ends of his feet as his legs are stretched up and out to either side.

“Yoga saved me,” said Douglas, who volunteers with the Holistic Life Foundation every week, helping to teach yoga’s benefits to a new generation of students.

The traveling yogis combined various yoga disciplines, poses and breathing exercises to create their own blend of practice that emphasizes mindfulness, or awareness that emerges when one is present or “in the moment.”

These days, the Holistic Life Foundation runs an after-school program offering yoga and meditation to about 25 students in pre-K through fifth grade at Robert W. Coleman Elementary in West Baltimore.

One recent afternoon in the school gym, only about half the students in the 45-minute class were paying attention. A 4-year-old bounced around the room, getting up every few minute from her mat to ask for water, her sweat shirt and to go to the nurse. A 10-year-old ran around in circles. And the teachers were constantly reminding the fidgeting bunch to stay focused.

Then, Atman Smith began a guided meditation, which caps off the practice, and the students settled into corpse pose, resting flat on their backs. He encouraged the group to surrender to the breath and focus on the “thumb-sized light at your heart center.”

Within seconds, the room fell silent.

For eight minutes, the students lay motionless on blue mats, eyes shut tight, palms facing the ceiling in total calm. When the meditation finished, some eyes remained closed. A handful of students had dozed off.

“I just be so deep into my meditation, I fall asleep,” said Ja’naisa Brown, 9. She tries to draw on her yoga skills when she’s frustrated, she said. “If somebody gets on my nerves, my mother tells me to go into the house and do yoga. I sit on the floor in my room, put on my music and breathe.”

Carlillian Thompson, principal at Coleman Elementary said she has seen shy students open up since taking the class and angry students learn to settle themselves down.

“I look at some of the older children who have had anger management issues; now they do the meditation, and they try to solve their problems by speaking,” she said. “Is it a quick fix, are all of the children making great strides like this? No, but they all are making progress. And that’s the thing I really like about it.”

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Meditation class teaches kids to be still and know

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Helen T. Gray, Kansas City Star: Five-year-old Marissa Roberts was the littlest one in the youth meditation class Sunday at Unity Temple on the Plaza.

Parents know 5-year-olds can be a tad active. But Marissa tried hard to follow the instructions of her teacher, Peggy Mulvihill.

The lighting was dim, with soft lamps and candles and filtered daylight through stained glass windows. The 13 young people, ages 5 to 14, were quiet, waiting for whatever was to come.

They sat on chairs in a circle, with a small table in the center of the room.

What does it mean to meditate, Mulvihill asked. Several children were first-timers to the class that started in September. Many of their parents were meeting across the hall in an adult meditation class, led by Janet Taylor, director of the Temple Buddhist Center.

Some youngsters said they weren’t sure. Two others said: “It relaxes your mind” and “It closes your outer eyes and opens your inner eyes.”

Mulvihill explained it also meant to be fully aware of the here and now with all the senses, like what you hear and sense and smell. The theme that day was “Planting Seeds of Love.”

The children were then encouraged to talk about things the Earth gives — water, air, soil, food — and what they like to do on the Earth.

“What seeds can we work on this week?” Mulvihill asked.

Love, honesty, forgiveness, caring, happiness, trust, compassion, perseverance, kindness, patience. Just about everyone had something to add.

Then it was time for meditation. Mulvihill’s assistant, Joe Mentesana, a teacher, instructed the children to let their bodies be still. Feet on the floor — although little Marissa couldn’t manage that — eyes closed, hands open resting on their knees.

“I’ll play the bell and focus on the sound of the bell,” he said. “Then it will stop for a while, and when you hear it again the meditation will be over.”

The bell sound came when he gently circled the edge of a metal bowl with a stick-like object.

What did you hear, Mentesana asked.

“I could still hear the bell after it stopped.”

“I heard the clock.”

“I kind of fell asleep.”

Several said it was hard to keep still.

Karly McNeil, 14, said she had a hard time keeping her eyes closed “because I’m used to being aware of my surroundings.”

Although she has meditated before and listens to meditation CDs when she’s stressed, this was her first time attending the class.

“I’ll definitely come back,” she said. “This gives kids a chance to relax and to think about what’s on their minds.”

Heather Hastert, 11, said she was thinking about her family and if she had been nice or disrespectful.

Next was a lesson in breathing.

“Breathe through your nose, slowly raising hands up, and then out through your mouth, slowly pushing hands down,” Mulvihill said. “We’ll do it three times, then without the hand motions.”

She asked, “When can you do this?” That got a variety of answers.

“When your parents tell you to do something you don’t want to do.”

“Before a test.”

“When it’s noisy in the cafeteria.”

“When I’m mad at my sister.”

Mulvihill told the children to practice relaxing at home by taking the three deep breaths.

The youth then did a short walking meditation — in silence — to another room where they paired up and engaged in yoga positions, again without any talking.

Later one participant said she really needed to talk, while another one said she was more focused because there was no talking.

After the one-hour class, Eryka Bash, 11, said it helped her to feel calmer.

“I’m not as hyper.”

Her mom, Krissie Bash, said, “It is a blessing that she can learn (meditation) this young because everything in the world is getting faster and faster.”

Eryka had been coming with her to the adult class, but Bash is pleased there is a class on Eryka’s own level.

Ricky Carleton, 9, said he’s often tired when he wakes up, and meditation helps release his tiredness. But he said it’s hard for him to stay still because he likes to be active. (But he had to be told only once to sit up straight.)

His dad, Bruce Carleton, said, “Ricky can be pretty unfocused. If he can find more focus, he would better realize his potential.”

The idea for the youth meditation class came from Taylor hearing from parents who wanted the freedom to participate in her adult class.

“Also, some parents wanted to get their kids started early,” she said. “They thought how valuable it would have been if they had learned earlier.

“But we couldn’t use adult techniques. They had to be adapted to children.”

She approached Mulvihill, a Montessori teacher, to see if she would lead the project.

“She has a wealth of ideas and a passion for this project,” Taylor said.

“Children need to have balance,” Mulvihill said. “Children can go into meditation so easily because they have great imaginations and are so observant.”

When they learn meditation and how to breathe, they can learn how to focus and to relax instead of being anxious, she said.

“We are planting the seeds that they can develop the rest of their lives,” she said.

Mentesana said he has read research on meditation and children and said it is worthwhile to teach children to meditate because they can become more attentive. Also learning the breathing techniques can carry into their daily lives.

Taylor said that although some immediate results are evident, she really wants to think ahead 20 years.

“I want to meet the children who started when they were 5 to find out how they utilized those meditation tools throughout their lives,” she said. “I see this as a long-term process.”

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From time-out to quiet time: meditation comes to SF schools

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Natalie Jones, KALW News: Innovative ideas are often born in California. This is the home of Silicon Valley, after all. But, that spirit of innovation isn’t limited to finding more ways to plug in to the world of high tech. Innovation also means finding ways to disconnect from it all. This kind of innovation is taking place in three San Francisco public schools that have started school-wide meditation programs. The hope is that a little quiet time and mindfulness will help facilitate learning.

It’s all paid for with private money, and one school says it’s seeing results. Natalie Jones reports on how it works.

* * *

NATALIE JONES: Middle schools do not tend to be quiet places. For many people, middle school is hard enough in the best of circumstances. For students growing up in rough neighborhoods or dealing with difficult family issues, it can be especially stressful.

That’s why four years ago, James Dierke, principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco, decided to implement a meditation program for the entire school to see if it would help students and teachers deal with stress and focus on schoolwork.

JAMES DIERKE: There’s individual stresses of just being a teenager, there’s family stress, there’s community stress, and all those things multiply within a person. So this is something that everyone can do and doesn’t require a tremendous amount of effort on their part but has great results.

The program is called Quiet Time, and it teachers students the practice of Transcendental Meditation.

PA SYSTEM ANNOUNCEMENT: Please excuse this interruption, teachers and students, please prepare for Quiet Time, please prepare for Quiet Time.

Mr. Tagaloa’s homeroom is getting ready for the morning meditation session – they do fifteen minutes at the beginning of their school day, and fifteen minutes at the end.

VAO TAGALOA: Going to start our Quiet Time, let’s start by sitting up straight…close the eyes….let’s enjoy.

The dozen or so 8th graders in the room turn to face front, shut their eyes, and stay that way for a full fifteen minutes, without breaking the silence or fidgeting.

Visitacion Valley is one of the more challenged schools in the district – about two thirds of its students were getting free or reduced lunch last year, and the percentage of students proficient in basic subjects is lower than both the district-wide and the state-wide percentage.

In the last three months alone, there have been two homicides and more than a hundred assaults within just a mile radius of the school. Principal Dierke compares growing up in the neighborhood to living a war zone.

DIERKE: A lot of our kids come down with post-traumatic stress, just like you would if you lived in Iraq. So it’s hard to turn that off when you come in the school building when you sit down and try to study.

Post-traumatic stress is a hard thing to combat, but there are signs that Quiet Time is effective. Since the program started, test scores have gone up a little bit, attendance rates have gone up a little bit, and suspension rates have gone down, although the changes are only by a few percentage points. Most of the evidence of the program is anecdotal. Students and teachers participate willingly and say it’s helpful for them, and surveys that school has done return positive feedback. Though not everyone was enthusiastic at the beginning.

TRISTAN: Well, when they first took me in to train, I wasn’t so sure about the program…

Tristan is an 8th-grader, and has been doing meditation at school since 6th grade.

TRISTAN: But when I started to get into it and started to do it every day I noticed that it really helped me because I was sort of a trouble child, and then when I started to meditate I started to become a leader, I got good grades, so it was really helpful.

Students do have the option of doing something else quiet, such as reading, but Principal Dierke says only a few have chosen to do that. He’s also had strong support from parents.

DIERKE: In the last four years that we’ve been involved in this, I haven’t had one negative parent complaint.

The program, which for this school year costs about $175,000, is funded almost exclusively by the David Lynch Foundation, an organization set up by the filmmaker David Lynch, who’s known for surreal films such as Mulholland Drive and the TV series Twin Peaks. The organization’s goal is to provide Transcendental Meditation in schools and communities that could benefit from stress reduction. The rest of the funds come from private donations, which pay for 3.5 full time staff members who are trained to teach meditation. They spend their time teaching new students, helping returning students remember how to use the method, and training the teachers.

Two other schools in San Francisco are also trying the program – Everett Middle School and John O’Connell High School. They haven’t been doing it as long as Visitacion Valley, but they’re all hoping that meditation can create a refuge for students who wouldn’t otherwise have one.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Natalie Jones.

Natalie Jones is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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Encouraging journeys of self-discovery

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Vancouver Sun: Tim Ward, author of What the Buddha Never Taught, says young adults should spend time learning what is meaningful to them alone

If you’re looking for the meaning of life, you’ll benefit from seeking it out yourself, said author Tim Ward, who spent time in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand in the 1980s.

“I think it’s really valuable for everybody, preferably in their 20s, to really come up against the question, ‘Where does meaning reside,’ ” Ward said. “I think that there is an answer, and that is that part of what it is to be human is to generate meaning.

Ward wrote about his experiences in What the Buddha Never Taught, which has just been released in a special 20th anniversary edition with a foreword by Canadian anthropologist and author Wade Davis.

“One of the things I look at with regret in our current society is that so many of those meanings are given to kids, they sort of just jump onto meanings without having to feel what meaninglessness is like,” Ward said. “They want a career where they will make a lot of money, so they can live in a nice house and drive a big car because that’s what successful people do. That makes me cry and tear out what last bit of hair I’ve got. Where’s your struggle to find the meaning that’s in your bones?

“If anything, that’s my hope for this book on its 20th anniversary that it will encourage younger readers to do that fighting for the meaning in their life, and not accept the values that are given to them.”

Ward, 52, lived in Vancouver for four years while completing a degree in philosophy at the University of B.C. in the early ’80s.

He’ll be in Vancouver for a pair of appearances this month.

“I love going back to Vancouver. UBC is kind of like a great, big family that I don’t get to see very often, and it just really thrills me to go back and be part of campus life again,” he said.

After UBC he travelled to Thailand and spent time in a Buddhist monastery, living life based on the rules of Buddhism.

His experiences practicing meditation, eating just one meal a day and learning to live alongside wild animals became the basis for this book.

“The time I spent among Buddhists really changed my view of the world, and my view of what’s important in my own life,” he said. “This is not a devotional book, it’s meant to be a journalistic account of what happened to myself and others while I was there, including the absurdities and the foibles and the institutional problems that you get when you try to run a community based on Buddhist principles.”

He says one of the key experiences for him was learning to live with creatures that we in the west tend to think of as vermin: tarantulas, scorpions, cobras.

“There’s one passage in the book where I describe walking along a path with a load of laundry and a king Cobra rears right up in front of me,” he said. “I did what we’re taught to do, be very, very calm, and the snake got that and it kept going down the path and left me alone. That was a key moment of realizing that nature was not out to get me.”

He said this experience changed him; he no longer saw the world as out to get him.

“Where this really counts is in the Buddhist view, the entire world of your experience is a creation of your mind.

“Whatever is out there in the world is in a sense a reflection of your inner self,” he said.

“If you see the world as out to get you, you are a house divided against yourself. A kind of inner hatred, loathing, mistrust is taking place within you when you have that attitude against nature.”

Today, he works as a consultant for an international development organization, which sends him to Asia several times a year, but he’s never been back to the monastery where he lived in 1985, when he was 26 and seeking meaning in his life.

He still practises meditation on a daily basis, saying he particularly enjoys Tai Chi, because it is meditation in movement. He was even doing it while we were speaking on the phone.

“I find meditation in movement an easier way to drop into your body and change your mind from left brain thinking to right brain thinking,” Ward said. “I make sure to do that at least once a day, even for just a few minutes, to make this shift into this calmer, silent part of my brain.

“I do this to remind myself that I am not my thoughts. When you can step outside of that, you can immediately feel calm and relaxed no matter how many things might go on in your life that North Americans would say were stress.”

He says dissatisfaction is a natural state of the human mind and that people are always striving for a new job or to get more money, a better car, better friends or a better relationship.

“When we get these things we may feel a moment of relief, but pretty soon our brains find a way to be dissatisfied again,” he said. “When you see that that’s the human condition, rather than try to change your life, you can just try to be with that, and enjoy the life that you’ve got.

“But, too much of that can be a bad thing. There are kinds of dissatisfaction that I think are important to pay attention to.”

He cites the situation in Tunisia and his first marriage as examples of where it’s good to pay attention to dissatisfaction.

Today, he lives near Washington, D.C., with his second wife and he has a 20-year-old son from his first marriage.

He says that although Buddhists might not agree, his connection to his son makes him more concerned about global warming and the future of the planet.

“Every parent gets this,” he said. “When you’re connected to your kids, what happens in 50 or 100 years matters way more. When you’ve got kids you can’t help but be concerned about the future.”

He’s hesitant to say what it is that the Buddha never taught, saying it is the key to his book.

“The heart of Buddhism is asking what is the ego, what is the self? Is it something that in the west we see as a great thing, or is it something that is a fault in human nature, which if only we could get rid of it, we would be happy,” he said.

Ward is writing a new book, Zombies on Kilimanjaro, which asks how to balance the blessings of the ego with its curses.

” I try to take a middle way on this. I think that although the ego may be a cause of a lot of problems, it is a part of our human nature,” he said. “I think Buddhism doesn’t give a satisfactory answer to why we have an ego if it’s something we need to remove.”

Ward is the author of five books, including three spiritual travel and adventures based on his six years living in Asia.

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Meditation: a new teaching aid for young children

Serene students at Mona Vale’s Sacred Heart Primary School have been enlightened by a new program that combines meditation with education.

Designed by two of the school’s teachers in line with the New South Wales syllabus, the program focuses on relaxation techniques for primary students and aims to improve focus in the classroom.

Program developer and primary teacher Susan Rudd said students were delighted by the new teaching approach.

‘‘They absolutely love it, I don’t think I have met any child that hasn’t enjoyed meditation and those that find it difficult initially, over a course of a few weeks, are gradually able to do it,’’ Ms Rudd said.

The program became a part of the curriculum after students aged five to 12 ditched recreation for relaxation and joined a lunchtime meditation class.

Ms Rudd said meditation was particularly useful for children with anxiety, hyperactivity or ADHD disorders.

‘‘It allows them to increase their concentration by focusing on their breathing and finding stillness,’’ she said.

With the northern beaches school at its forefront, the program is gaining momentum with Chatswood and St Ives Public schools also using the program.

‘‘It creates a good environment for teaching and for the students to learn the curriculum because it’s a good visualisation skill,’’ Ms Rudd said.

[via The Manly Daily: Please visit the Manly Daily’s site and post a comment on this story]
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