Hamilton High’s Mindfulness Center Aims At Stress SanTan Sun News

Hamilton High’s Mindfulness Center Aims At Stress

October 8th, 2018 | by SanTan Sun News

By Colleen Sparks

Managing Editor

In a time with rampant social media use, mass shootings and political turmoil, teenagers can easily get overwhelmed with stress, and they might not have the tools to tame their tension.

Hamilton High School is tackling the issue by offering teens a safe, peaceful place to get support with its new Mindfulness Center, scheduled to open Oct. 17.

Students will be able to relax in 20 bean bag chairs in a room with miniature sand Zen gardens, therapeutic coloring books, puzzles, inspirational quotes posted all over the center and two water fountains.

Plants and dim lighting will enhance the peaceful feeling of the Mindfulness Center, according to Rajani Rastogi, licensed master social worker at Hamilton High.

Teens can come to the center to talk to Rastogi, Hamilton licensed master social worker Julianne Haddad or Shelley Geary, a licensed master social worker from Arizona State University.

Every Friday during lunch periods, outside experts will visit the center to talk about and teach yoga, meditation or other topics for wellness.

The rest of the week during lunch, the social workers will encourage meditation and talk about gratitude, self-compassion, stress relief and other topics to help students build strong mental health, Rastogi said.

The Mindfulness Center grew out of conversations Rastogi and Haddad had about the issues students are facing.

“We are seeing an increased number of students that are struggling with suicidal thoughts and anxiety and depression,” Rastogi said. “With teenagers, they are over-stimulated in today’s world with cell phones and all the electronic gadgets.

“It’s so important to help them understand some grounding techniques to focus with mindfulness…being aware of their feelings and emotions, not being stuck on the past and not worrying about the future, really focusing on the here and now to help them improve their current situation. We’re trying to educate students in the school about mindfulness.”

In neighboring Gilbert, Mesquite High School has a Mindfulness and Life Skills Program that is in its second year. The Gilbert Public School District is trying to combat substance abuse by teaching students how to cope with stress.

Mesquite High’s Mindfulness Center, since opening last year, has become a popular place for students to unwind from the pressures of the day, according to district officials.

The school also offers mindfulness training and parent connection classes on communicating with teens, suicide prevention, substance abuse and other topics.

Mesquite High School’s mental health and well-being program was made possible with a $100,000-a-year, three-year competitive grant from the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family.

At Hamilton High, the Mindfulness Center has become a reality because of donations from parents in the community, who provided all the supplies and items needed, Rastogi said.

Principal Michael De La Torre provided the room as “he knew we wanted to start a mindfulness program,” she said.

“He has been very supportive,” Rastogi said. “We started with a blank slate. I’m very fortunate to have amazing relationships with the parents in our community and at Hamilton High School.

“I wanted to cry when I saw how everything has come together with the support of our community and parents. It’s just very heartwarming to see when you have an idea and it comes to fruition and it really does take a village.”

She said she and the other social workers want to teach students how to “get centered,” and then they will have tools to use on a daily basis to manage their emotions.

They can learn how anger and other emotions affect their bodies and develop empathy for themselves and others, Rastogi said.

Teachers and other staff members can make referrals during the day for students to visit the Mindfulness Center anytime if they are dealing with panic attacks or “a lot of stress,” Rastogi said.

“We’re always looking at what can we do to provide more services, help students get to a place where they are feeling good about who they are as people,” she said. “I’m very passionate and so excited about this program and we are hoping to help as many kids as possible to just live a happier life and enjoy their high school experience.”

The vagus nerve, emotions and the difficulty with mindfulness practices | healing from the freeze

“Now, many people who don’t know a lot about trauma think that trauma has something to do with something that happened to you a long time ago. In fact, the past is the past and the only thing that matters is what happens right now. And what is trauma is the residue that a past event leaves in your own sensory experiences in your body and it’s not that event out there that becomes intolerable but the physical sensations with which you live that become intolerable and you will do anything to make them go away.” (Bessel van der Kolk)

Last week, during a two-day deep cleaning/paint prep binge (see the kitchen ceiling to the right!), I listened to a recorded talk by Bessel van der Kolk given at the May 2011 22nd Annual International Trauma Conference. The title of van der Kolk’s title is a mouthful: “Putting neuroplasticity into clinical practice with neurofeedback: rewiring the brains of children and adults who lack safety, self-regulation, capacity for play, and executive functioning.” The lecture in itself was interesting enough to keep me attentive for its length, but what particularly captured my interest is the manner in which he described the relationship of the vagus nerve to our emotions.

As I remembered from anatomy, the vagus nerve (cranial nerve x) innervates the diaphragm [author’s correction – the phrenic nerve provides motor innervation of the diaphgram] but what failed to register in class is that the vagus nerve also innervates much of our viscera – in fact all of our internal organs with the notable exception of the adrenal glands. It supplies parasympathetic fibers to these organs, meaning that the vagus nerve is a “rest and digest” nerve, not a fight or flight nerve. Van der Kolk quotes from Darwin’s work, “the heart, guts and brain communicate intimately via a nerve” – the pneumogastric or vagus nerve – “the critical nerve in the expression and management of emotions in both humans and animals…. When the mind is strongly excited it instantly affects the state of the viscera.” This is, of course, why our guts react strongly to our emotional state.

Van der Kolk continues with the statement that grabbed me: “what makes life unbearable is not emotions but physical sensations.”

“When you have a persistent sense of heartbreak and gutwrench, the physical sensations become intolerable and we will do anything to make those feelings disappear. And that is really the origin of what happens in human pathology. People take drugs to make it disappear, and they cut themselves to make it disappear, and they starve themselves to make it disappear, and they have sex with anyone who comes along to make it disappear and once you have these horrible sensations in your body, you’ll do anything to make it go away.”

“If these sensations last long enough, your whole brain starts fighting against emotions. And what happens in the long range is that traumatized people who continuously have a state of heartbreak and gut wrenching feelings learn to shut off the sensations in their bodies. And they go through life not feeling their physical presence.”

He then touches on a very important point and one that strongly resonates with me – “it’s a beginning of understanding why traumatized people have such a hard time with mindfulness and why mindfulness in principle doesn’t work for traumatized people because they cannot feel.” Van der Kolk had sent many of his highly traumatized patients to do mindfulness exercises with Jon Kabat-Zinn and found that many of them were returning in a state of upset and agitation.

“As they became silent and started to pay attention to themselves, they get overwhelmed with the physical sensations and they would flee, because being mindful means that you get confronted with your internal world.” In other words, the sensations of the internal world can be so intense that, lacking the tools to work through those sensations, people dissociate during mindfulness exercises. This is not limited to mindfulness exerces but happens in other types of movement, meditative, or healing practices, such as qigong, yoga or massage.

What van der Kolk has found to be a useful tool for moving through this difficulty is neurofeedback, which helps individuals learn to self-regulate by utilizing a feedback tool very similar to a video game that rewards the user for achieving target states such as relaxation, alertness, or focus.

One type of neurofeedback

While neurofeedback is a very useful tool and may be a major breakthrough in trauma recovery, it is not always easy to access. Although I am less familiar with them, there are other therapies such as Hakomi method and SomatoEmotional Release that help individuals work with the emotions and physical sensations that often trigger dissociation. A major focus of my studies at this point is to understand better how Chinese/Traditional East Asian medicine works with trauma and the emotions. I suspect that many different modalities can be useful for learning to be present and integrated with our bodies, but also argue that the role of the practitioner and power of intention are key ingredients in the process.

I also believe that bodywork and somatic re-education (acupuncture, massage, tuina, qigong, sotai, et) are essential components to releasing and restoring function to tissues and organs that have lost mobility due to years of fleeing from those physical sensations that van der Kolk describes. We may learn to stay present with our physical sensations, but if the diaphragm is hypertonic (or too tight, just like your shoulders) or the stomach can’t move properly in the abdominal cavity, we will have to work really hard to achieve calm presence when we could instead work to unblock stagnation and release tissues. However, the issue is often truly much more complex than this and healing for many people occurs not by a magic button but through many interwoven processes that may include acupuncture, movement work, EMDR, neurofeedback, nutritional counseling, talk therapy, and meditation or mindfulness practices.

I’ve been unable to get Van der Kolk’s talk out of my mind. Although none of the concepts are unfamiliar to me, there is a sense that I’m missing something or that this visceral-emotional relationship needs to be more closely explored. In Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM), the emotions closely affect and are affected by the viscera but I have yet to truly explore the many classical references to this relationship. Spending some time sitting with the classics may help shed some light on how and why acupuncture, moxibustion and other TEAM modalities have been known to treat trauma and shock. A worthwhile topic to explore next.

190 thoughts on “The vagus nerve, emotions and the difficulty with mindfulness practices

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Schools in England Introduce a New Subject: Mindfulness – The New York Times

“Every day our front-line services see children and teenagers struggling to get to grips with how they fit into the increasingly complex modern world — contending with things like intense pressure at school, bullying or problems at home, all while being bombarded by social media,” he said in a statement on Monday.

He added: “Services like these can lessen the anxiety, pain and anguish that some teens go through, but also reduce their need for intensive support further down the line.”

But two Parliamentary committees have criticized the government reports on which the program is based, for focusing on handling emotional problems rather than preventing them. In a report released last May, the Education and Health and Social Care Committees wrote, “the Government’s strategy lacks ambition and will provide no help to the majority of those children who desperately need it,” while increasing the workload of teachers.

“The role of prevention appears to be a missing link in building better support for children and young people, especially in the early years,” the committees wrote. They found that social media and the schools’ system of high-pressure exams can have particularly negative effects on the mental health of young people.

But Dr. Jessica Deighton, an associate professor in child mental health and well-being at University College London who is leading the government trials, said that the new initiative was intended to offer more than quick fixes.

“There is a tendency to think that the solution is mental health intervention,” she said on Monday. “We will try to reduce the stigma against mental health problems, by making the school environment literate in mental health.”

She said the program included several tactics, including training teachers to hold role-playing exercises, teaching relaxation practices and inviting professionals for group discussions.

“It’s not just to make them feel better in the short-term,” Dr. Deighton said, “but to better equip them for later in life.”

Naked wisdom for degenerate times: Vajrayogini, enlightened wisdom queen, leads us to bliss, clear light and emptiness, despite modern obstacles – Buddha Weekly: Buddhist Practices, Mindfulness, Meditation

The great Lama Yeshe said, “The Vajrayogini yoga method is extremely powerful. It is just what we need in these degenerate times, with our delusions running rampant and our minds grasping at concretized sense pleasures. Therefore, a method such as this, which has the wisdom to transform delusions, is of the utmost need, especially as it has the profound property of becoming more powerful as delusions become stronger.”

Of all the Vajrayana meditative deities, Vajrayogini is credited with being the one practice for our busy, hectic, terrifying times which can lead us, in one lifetime, to Enlightenment. (See full “teaching” video with Garchen Rinpoche on Vajrayogini, embedded below.)

Note: some nudity in the thangkas.

Vajrayogini meditational devotional satue.

[NOTE: Vajrayogini’s actual practice requires empowerment, initiation and instruction from a qualified teacher. This feature is simply to inform on the benefits of practice.]

Feature by Josephine Nolan,

Beautiful Vajrayogini, Naropa lineage.

Vajrayogini has been called the “Buddha for our times.” There’s an old Tibetan saying: “Practicing any Buddha is practising all Buddhas.” The great Atisha, when he first came to Tibet, was horrified to find Tibetans practicing many deities at once. He admonished them that they only have to practice one. The Enlightened qualities of one Buddha — including Vajrayogini — are no different from the qualities of another Buddha, even if we sometimes say, Tara specializes in “protection” and “Medicine Buddha” in medicine. So, why is Vajrayogini “the Buddha for our times?”

NOTE: Although the practices themselves are secret, discussing the benefits of practice is not. Vajrayana deity practices are widely available online, however just because they are available does not mean they should be practised without authorization or empowerment from a qualified teacher. However, any student, for example, in a temple, can make offerings and praise Vajrayogini.

The Buddha for our time?

Simply put, Her visualization, Her appearance, Her mantra, Her sadhana, are all designed to counter our modern obstacles — especially the obstacles of our degenerate times. In our modern age, when we have no time, when life is always in the way of practice, when we struggle with many fears — terrorism, global warming, wars, paying the bills, healing our sickness — these are all the reasons to consider Her practice. Vajrayogini manifests in her fiery red, passionate, stunning beautiful and energetic form. Fast action. Fast practice. An appearance that is instantly modern and relatable.

Vajrayogini’s mandala featuring the double tretrahedran (reality source) and the four pink bliss swirls. All of the images and symbols convey a precise and powerful message.

Vajrayogini is not superior to any other Buddha. They are all perfect. They are all Oneness. But, She specifically manifests for these times — She is at once more intimate, closer to us, and more relatable than, for example, a serene peaceful Buddha. The serene, peaceful Buddha conjures the feeling of six years of renunciation under a tree meditating. In today’s world, how can anyone contemplate such a commitment?

In violent, fast-paced times, we sometimes can more easily relate to the ferocious energy of the Dakini Queen, who delivers realizations in a dervish of dancing energy, blissful realization and sudden glimpses of Shunyata.

Video 2018 teaching from Garchen Rinpoche on Vajrayogini:

An “easy” Higher Yoga practice?

Another form of Vajrayogini.

Although Vajrayogini is a Highest Yoga Tantra practice, her meditation is relatively simple. Visualizing her is easy — she’s simply so stunningly beautiful it’s hard not to think of her appearance. She is also profoundly accomplished in every way:

“Vajrayogini/Vajravarahi ranks first and most important among the dakinis. She is the “Sarva-buddha-dakini” the Dakini Who is the Essence of all Buddhas.” [1]

Vajrayogini pratice has led to Enlightenment of many great masters. “Of the 84 Mahasiddhas of ancient India, many gained their attainments through the practices of Heruka Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini” [3] Traditionally, this is because the Chakrasamvara Vajrayogini mandala actually still exists in our physical world — most mandalas are absorbed back into emptiness at the end of meditations. This makes Her practice ideal for these chaotic times.

Spiritual benefits: countless

Although there are mundane benefits as well (see below), Her practice is especially known for higher spiritual attainments:

“She is the Anuttarayoga Tantra Istadevi (the only and the first Deity) and Her practice includes methods for preventing ordinary death, intermediate state (bardo) and rebirth (by transforming them into the paths to enlightenment), and for transforming all mundane daily experiences into spiritual paths.” [4]

Vajrayogini’s practice is the path to understanding Shunyata (Emptiness) and Clear Light — the luminosity of the nature of mind.

 [NOTE: Vajrayogini’s actual practice requires empowerment, initiation and instruction from a qualified teacher. This feature is simply to inform on the benefits of practice.]

Ten benefits of practice according to root Tantra

Another form of Vajrayogini.

The source Tantra, in the Condensed Root Tantra of Heruka, explains there are ten key spiritual benefits to practice, many not available from other practices:

There are also two relatively more secret (due to complexity) benefits; in other words benefits that aren’t easily understood unless you are already a practitioner. We won’t explain them here, since they are too profound as topics to cover here, but we list them for reference:

This complex thangka depicts the various lineage masters going all the way back to Buddha Vajradhara, who is actually Buddha Shakyamuni is tantric form. At the upper left are the main tantric deities – Yamantaka, Heruka Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja. At the upper right are the Buddhas of the past and present – Krakucchanda, Kasyapa and Shakyamuni. At the bottom left are the three long-life deities – Amitayus, Namgyalma and White Tara. At the bottom right are Chenrezig, Manjushri and Vajrapani, who, taken together can be said to represent Lama Tsongkhapa, the great 14th century Tibetan scholar and saint who is an emanation of these three great Buddhas. Below Vajrayogini are two Dharma Protectors – 4-faced Mahakala (a wrathful emanation of Heruka) and Citipati, the special Protector for Vajrayogini practitioners.

Cognitive benefits

Vajrayogini’s seed syllable in her double triangle mandala. Although this appears to be a double triangle, it is actually visualized in three dimensions, as a double tetrahedron.

Vajrayana Buddhists rely on symbols and visualization, activating mind, body and speech simultaneously with visualization (mind), mudra (body) and mantra or ritual (speech) respectively. Science has proven the relationship between Vajrayana meditation and cognitive benefits due to this massive activation of brain matter (See our story “Research Proves Vajrayana Meditation Improve Cognitive Performance and Promising for Brain Disorders>>)

The visual symbols, often including wrathful deities with fangs, animal heads, and the naked feminine, is usually misunderstood — which is why practices are normally secret.  The astonishingly beautiful and naked Vajrayogini, especially in sexual union, probably provokes the deepest misunderstanding.

NOTE: Although the practices themselves are secret, discussing them is not. Vajrayana deity practices are widely available online, however just because they are available does not mean they should be practised without authorization or empowerment from a qualified teacher. However, any student, for example, in a temple, can make offerings and praise Vajrayogini.

 [NOTE: Vajrayogini’s actual practice requires empowerment, initiation and instruction from a qualified teacher. This feature is simply to inform on the benefits of practice.]

Activating 280 million neurons

In seeing an image of some Enlightened deities, non-practitioners often see sex and demons — where there is actually nothing more than visual language that activates massive frontal volumes of brain matter:

“The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: Larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter.” — Science Direct [2]

Mindfulness meditation has shown measurable increases in the thickness of the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for higher level thinking.

In addition, visualization may active the visual cortex of our brains — over 280 million neurons. (For more on Vajrayana visualization, see our earlier story>>)

Interestingly, there is a visual cortex in both hemispheres of the brain, right and left. In scientific studies, visualization of Vajrayana deities in this way, has proven to be effective for growing cognitive abilities, and even beneficial for people with dementia. (Please see our earlier story: Peer-reviewed studies prove daily meditation increases cognitive function>>)

The great Mahasiddhi Naropa and his Yidam Vajrayogini.

Wisdom and compassion united

Vajrayogini (Wisdom) in union with Heruka Chakrasamvara (Compassion).

In broad strokes, the symbolism divides (and yet is never divided) into two themes: capital-C Compassion (symbolized in male Englightened Buddhas) and capital-W Wisdom (symbolized by female Enlightened Dakinis.) The combination of the two, visualized as the union of the male (compassion) and female (wisdom), brings a bliss and intensity to daily meditations — the faster-path to helping us understand Shunyata (Emptiness) and Clear Light.

The Dakini is often said to be the “bringer of bliss and wisdom.” Vajrayogini, the Queen of the Dakinis, is the best known of the Enlightened Feminine — after, perhaps, Venerable Tara. Vajrayogini is none other than an emanation of Tara (or vice versa, it doesn’t matter.)

Psychology of Dakinis

Noted psychologist, Rob Preece, in The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, describes the power of Dakini symbols:

“As an archetypal symbol of the feminine, the dakini brings fiery wildness and deep instinctuality of feminine… As an aspect of Anima, she is at the heart of our relationship life. The Dakini is known as a messenger, a bringer of profound intuitions, and insight into the deepest aspects of the psyche.”

He goes on to describe Vajrayogini as the “most potent validation of this quality.”

“Her fiery red, dancing form reflects a quality similar to the flamenco dancer — proud, undaunted, powerful and erotic. She carries a curved knife to cut through the ignorance and stupidity she encounters, and, holding a skullcup of blood, she drinks a blissful nectar of the essence of her feminine power. Across her shoulder is a staff, called a khatvanga, symbolizing her integration of the masculine. She is adorned with bone ornaments and a crown of skulls and around her neck she wears a necklace of skulls.”

“She is the dance or play of emptiness, like the play of light rippling on the surface of water. Her appearance is manifest, yet illusory.”

A beautiful newari (new-style) take on Vajrayogini.

Vajrayogini, dancing wisdom

In a recent story honoring Dakini Day, we described the feminine wisdom deities this way (story here>>):

“Dakinis are portrayed as elusive, playful and often fierce and naked to symbolically convey how elusive true Wisdom encompassing “Emptiness” can be.”

But why is Vajrayogini not only naked, but so exquisitely (almost distractingly) beautiful. Not just beautiful, but sexual, unabashed, carefree, youthful and passion-inspiring.

It’s a difficult concept to describe. Basically, in Vajrayana, the deities appear in a form that aligns with obstacles we are trying to overcome. Vajrayogini is so desirous, that she almost appears to challenge us to overcome our silly craving for sensual pleasures. “See, there’s nothing special about being naked and dancing around,” she almost seems to say.

Of course, the message is not so superficial. Her nudity expresses how we must shed not only our cravings but our pre-conceived notions of how things are — if we are to understand the true nature of the universe, which is Emptiness (Shunyata.)

Vajryogini’s Appearance

Vajrayogini in her blue form as consort of the great Hayagriva, Heruka aspect of Amitabha Buddha. In this form she has a sow’s head (symbolizing overcoming of ignorance) and Hayagriva has a horse head signifying the activity of Dharma Speech (most important of the three jewels.) For a story on Hayagriva Vajrayogini see here>>

Vajrayogini is not always red. In union with Hayagriva she is blue. She is not always in union, sometimes she is alone and dancing with a Katvanga (which represents her consort). Often, as Vajravarahi, she is seen with a sow’s head (pig) sprouting from her wild hair — symbolic of overcoming ignorance.

“Although there are a number of visual representations of Vajrayogini, certain attributes are common to all: She is mostly shown as young, naked, and standing in a desirous or dancing posture. She holds a blood-filled skull cup in one hand and a curved knife (kartr or dri-gug) in the other. Often she wears a garland of human skulls or severed heads; has a khatvanga staff leaning against her shoulder; her usually wild hair flowing down her neck and back; her face in a semi-wrathful expression. Her radiant red body is ablaze with the heat of yogic fire and surrounded by the flames of wisdom.” [1]

Practicing Vajrayogini

Although Vajrayogini is a Highest Yoga Tantra, requiring both permission and empowerment, anyone can honor, pray to, or meditate on her as an “external deity.” It is not permitted to visualize the self as Vajrayogini without initiation, and probably not to chant the mantra, but one can come closer to Vajrayogini’s enlightened qualities through praise, offerings and prayers without empowerments.

Unlike other meditations, however, the very energetic nature of Vajrayogini’s meditation — designed as it is to cope with the high pace of our “degenerate times” — requires some guidance. The best path to Vajrayogini is through a qualified teacher, with proven lineage.

 [NOTE: Vajrayogini’s actual practice requires empowerment, initiation and instruction from a qualified teacher. This feature is simply to inform on the benefits of practice.]