orange light in concrete room

 

In this post, I am sharing my experiences designing and leading mindfulness meditation groups for youth at-promise. The summary of my experiences below is part of a personal capstone project for the Nalanda Institute’s Contemplative Psychotherapy program.

This past year, I used mindfulness-based meditative interventions for at-promise youth.  I came to realize that sitting and following the breath or another object during meditation presented difficulties for the youth. I imagined these difficulties might have stemmed from a struggle with anxiety and lack of confidence. Many participants have been told they are incapable of sitting and paying attention. Internalizing these beliefs can make the practice seem challenging and frustrating.  I thought giving them an experience of relaxation and personal power or confidence before meditating would help their ability to sit calmly through the meditation.

I used the following basic structure for the group:  We held a brief discussion about the practices we’d be doing and what to expect. The youths were given the option to leave the room quietly if remaining still and quiet became difficult. I stated I trusted them to know when they were unable to maintain silence. This rule worked well. I rarely had to ask people to leave the group. I described the type of meditation we would do and an outline of expectations. I let them know they could lie down or sit for body sensing and then would sit up for guided mindfulness meditation. With few exceptions, the youth chose to lie down on the floor, with knees perched on a chair or legs flat on the ground.

I guided them to close their eyes, take a few deep breaths, then allow my voice to guide them through the parts of the body. I used a full body relaxation meditation that has roots in Western science’s progressive muscle and autogenic relaxation techniques in a form similar to Richard Miller’s “Body Sensing” approach. Miller’s version doesn’t tense or relax the muscles or direct the experiencer to relax like other approaches. Miller’s strategy rotates attention around areas of the body according to a motor and sensory cortex map and requests the meditator to bring that portion of the body into awareness. He adds to this body scan, movement through the subtle body energy system. Miller believes this system of very subtle energies points to our “True Nature.” As Miller stated, “Usually our listening is oriented toward objects. We rarely stop to consider the deep energies that animate these objects.” This idea of “true nature” fits very nicely with the Tibetan Buddhist notion of the limitless expanse of being and with Dr. Joe Loizzo’s human-shaped bubble imagery. Our “true nature” is far more than our identification with a physical body. It is the great interplay between the body and space and space and the body. Miller’s approach allows one to be open to whatever the experience is rather than imposing notions of relaxation.

I made some adaptations to Miller’s body scan by bringing in Dr. Joe Loizzo’s idea of the human shaped bubble as inspired by Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana practices. As the Miller scan moves the body into space, I request they dissolve the world of ordinary appearances (the universe, galaxy, solar system, Earth, continent, country, state, city and room around them. I direct meditators to dissolve or leave the ordinary body behind. I bring in Loizzo’s visualization of the body dissolving from solids (flesh and bones) to liquids, to gases and heat. I request the meditator to leave the ordinary body behind and re-emerge as Loizzo’s Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana inspired human shaped bubble. I describe the openness and flexibility of becoming a bubble. I allow them to rest in this state for a period on their own.

After several minutes of feeling the human-shaped bubble body in space, I would guide them to return the universe, galaxy, solar system, earth, location and room to its ordinary appearance. I would have them return to their ordinary body as well. I would then, guide them to come to a seated meditation position and “rest in pure awareness” for a few moments. I noticed after the body scan, dissolution and return to the ordinary body that the youths were completely relaxed and able to sit still.

I guided them to notice their breath, sometimes having them count their breaths backward. From there, I’d guide them to just meditate on the breath or through the other three foundations of mindfulness. Sometimes, we closed with a simple mantra recitation about change or loving kindness.

After the meditation, I left some time for discussion about experiences during the meditation. I found that combining some elements of Vajrayana practices (dissolution of ordinary appearances and body) with mindfulness practices were helpful. Using the body scan and imagery of the human shaped bubble allowed youth to relax and build confidence before seated meditation. The dissolution of the ordinary body and appearance structures helped the youth relate to themselves and to mindfulness meditation differently. I also noted my sensing where the group was during meditation helped me understand when guiding was an impediment or aid in their experience. If the group exhibited extraordinary calmness and alertness during the meditation, I guided them less. If they were struggling, I guided them more or provided a mantra to build concentration further.

Building the youths confidence and providing a deeper level of relaxation before mindfulness meditation proved useful in this case, helping eliminate doubt and performance anxiety around the practice. Utilizing Richard Miller’s techniques of body scanning meditation and bringing in the dissolution and re-emergence based on traditional Vajrayana meditation practices, I was able to give meditators a launching pad of confidence in their abilities to successfully approach the practice of ordinary mindfulness meditation.

The following are a few quotes from the post-meditation discussions:

  • “I think everyone should meditate.”
  • “For a moment, I turned into my knee.”
  • “I feel calm.”
  • “I am chill.”
  • “I’ve never meditated before and didn’t know if I could do it. I did it.”
  • “That was crazy.”
  • “Miss, do you smoke weed?”
  • “I was out in space.”
  • “I’m not gonna lie; I was pissed off when I came in here. Now I feel calm.”
  • “I stopped feeling anxious.”
  • “I moved through my body.”
  • “I could hear your voice, but I felt like I was asleep.”

Resources of interest and References:

Sustainable Happiness: The Mind Science of Well-Being, Altruism, and Inspiration – Joe Loizzo

galaxy

  

Please read my earlier post that outlines my initial direction and intention for a group intervention for at-promise youth. Things changed quite a bit from the initial approach, but I believe the spirit was maintained.

My experience creating and facilitating a meditation group with at-promise youth helped me to see that flexibility and really listening to youth were my most important interventions.  This group combined the more western psychological approaches of group therapy with meditation and movement. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do and proceeded to hone the development of the group via my experiences facilitating. As I began to implement the group I realized some changes needed to be made. Initially I wondered what the subject matter for each group would be, but after I began I noticed themes arose. I came up with four or five topics that seemed to be relevant for these youth. The topic for each week of group would be the following: Trust, Unfairness, Struggle, Worry and Change. Initially, I would open up the group by presenting a topic of discussion and allowing youth to talk about a situation in their life that related to the topic at hand. At times, this went well, but at other times one or two youth would monopolize the discussion and continue to talk, go off topic and need to be redirected several times. This isn’t uncommon in our groups in general, but I thought I may avoid this situation by changing the order of group events. Another approach was to begin with breathing exercises. I would do two to three minutes each of deep belly breathing, alternate nostril breathing and slow kapalabhati. Each type of breathing was followed by noticing natural breathing (without effort) for a minute or two after the deliberate breathing exercise. The first time I conducted the group opening with breathing it went well. Subsequent times I did this, I had issues depending on the youth in the group. It is interesting to note that though some youth remained the same in the group for four or five weeks, a good number of them would change. I had to adapt the group when new kids came in to the facility. In addition, I would use images and poetry that related to the topic of the group in order to stimulate more thinking and creativity around the topic. I ultimately came to settle on all of the elements of group and would adapt the order based on the number of kids and the energy of the group. Group events roughly looked like the following:

Group rules (always at beginning of group)

Image and or poetry relating to topic of group and discussion

Discussion and examples of topic from life

Breathing exercises

Movement exercises (yoga, qigong or other energetic work)

Guided Imagery I (w/o role model) and discussion

Guided Imagery II (w/ role model) and discussion (optional) – role modeling and healing mentor meditation based on Tibetan Buddhist Deity meditation practice.

Closing recitation – “May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be free from suffering.”

I found that being flexible with the order of events and cutting out events when more important and fertile discussion arose was helpful. I would make sure to get in one or two guided imagery practices and some form of movement.

I discovered it was helpful for the group if I selected certain members to be present from week to week. I found that having kids who I identified as “leaders” and who seemed to have an “affinity” for meditation and yoga were good to have in the group. I would make sure that at least one of them was in the group from week to week. I would often exclude youth who had difficulty being open and focusing around specific peers, who they may have had problematic relationships with prior to detention. I would discuss this with them individually, letting them know why I did not want them attending group the next week. If I noticed one youth could not focus on breathing without giggling with a friend during group I would take time to discuss the situation with them and if it did not improve I would not have them partake in group the next week. I would work with staff to identify youth who naturally reached out for support and had an air of seriousness about them. I left it open that if a youth who had been asked to not join group due to problematic behaviors in prior groups, had an opportunity to speak with me one on one about rejoining the group. On more than one occasion I had a youth approach me and ask if they could rejoin the group. This had the effect of making the group something special that they wanted to join.

I had basic rules about confidentiality (what is said in this room, stays in this room), one mic (one speaker at a time) and respect. At the beginning of group I would allow the youth to explain the meaning of each rule. It was helpful to re-iterate the rules when youth needed reminding during group.

The initial guided meditation involved counting the breath backwards, letting go of counting and focusing on natural breathing. I utilized basic mindfulness approaches to settle the mind. As far as sitting posture went, I used the analogy of a garden hose and the difficulty of water flowing through it when it is bent. We often sat in chairs around a table, but some members after being in group for a couple of weeks wanted to sit cross-legged on the floor. After noticing the breath, I would have them imagine themselves in a place where they felt comfortable and relaxed. I would present the option of a special room or place outside as a place where they may feel relaxed and at ease. The youth would report that they would really feel like they went somewhere else and at times we would need to process sadness, when they came back into “ordinary life” to realize they were still in their current situation. Once the safe place in their mind was established, I would have them visualize the topic of the group. For example, if the topic was being treated unfairly, I would have them visualize a situation they identified earlier in group or the feeling of unfairness in general. I would request they observe it with curiosity as if they were a scientist with a subject or watching a movie play before their eyes. I would request they also move in to feel it in the body. Then, after visualizing and feeling unfairness. I would have them put their hands over their hearts and repeat to themselves, “I am fair to myself”. I would ask them to repeat this over and over as a mantra. I would then ask them to dissolve the words, images and the scene around them until they were sitting in the room. Next, I would bring them to notice the breath and get a sense of their body in the room on the ‘in and out’ breath. Finally, I would have them slowly open their eyes and return to the group in the room.

After the meditation we would discuss any experiences that happened during and after the meditation. Some youth would express that it was challenging for them to sit still. Some would describe what it was like for them to be in a place where they felt comfortable and relaxed and were able to describe this in some detail. One youth stated that he didn’t realize he could just do that (imagine) anytime he wanted and would like to do it when he is sitting alone in his room. Another youth stated that when we repeated the phrase “I am fair to myself” he had difficulty “giving myself a break”. This turned into a discussion about the difficulty of having self-compassion.

The second guided imagery meditation intervention involved bringing the role model into a similar scenario of unfairness. At times, I would have them visualize the mentor in front of them as they showed the mentor their current struggle with unfairness or as they visualized the scene of unfairness. At other times the mentor would enter from the side and put their hand on their shoulder. I would describe the mentor transmitting their support and mastery (power) to the youth from their heart to the youth or from their hand into the youth’s body. This support and mastery would fill their body in the form of light. Initially I did not specify criteria for the role model, other than to say “leader, teacher, wise counselor, elder, super hero, author, religious figure….” during the meditation. This gave the youth an opportunity to go with whomever came to mind. After the meditation, I had more than one youth comment that the role model they chose was unable to help them. They reported that the role model they chose may not be the right one for the job. This turned into a discussion on the qualities of a role model. I eventually added a group session that dealt strictly with identifying a role model.

The success of the group seemed often to boil down to how flexible I was in delivering my interventions. When I was least able to adapt to the group dynamic was when I felt things lose energy. However, even these situations became learning situations for all of us, when openly discussed. The youth would often be able to articulate why they were struggling and feeling antsy in group and we were all able to process it together. My distress tolerance played a fairly big role in the collective distress tolerance of the group. My history of meditation and distress tolerance as well as my comfort in delivering guided meditation also played a role. I am interested in conducting assessments at the beginning and end of group at some point in the near future to measure any interesting results. I am posting narrative quotes and summaries that I collected below:

Group Feedback

Youth reported that the meditation was relaxing and that when he dissolved the world and the universe the negative things also dissolved. Youth reported it was nice to feel positive things.

Youth reported that during the reflection he saw himself changing and was able to visualize what he wished to change. Youth reported if felt good to notice change and feel supported.

“I had trouble visualizing a role-model / mentor. I had an idea of who I wanted it to be but I couldn’t see them clearly. What do you think that means?”

“This time I listened, followed along and focused and it worked.”

Youth was able to identify an effective role model in her life. Youth stated she had some difficulty with the visualization due to anxiety but that she is capable of “seeing things”.

Youth reported that when change showed up during the visualization she saw herself and that she had a difficult conversation with herself. Youth reported that she found herself difficult to get along with and this is what she needs to work on.

Youth reported that during the visualization she saw herself in a new light and that she hopes others see she has changed.

Youth stated when she reflected on a place that she feels comfortable in, it made her sad to be where she is now.

“I realized that the role-model I chose could not help me and that I needed to find a better one. I will think of a new one for next time”

“I chose Nelson Mandella as my role model.”

“I was sitting on a mound of dirt, next to a pond and had a conversation with a lizard.”

Youth reported that during the visualization he pictured himself on top of a mountain and entering a house with a family that appeared to be his family. Youth interpreted this as the possibility of having a healthy family in the future, something he did not think possible prior.

Youth reported during the reflection (role modeling meditation) he saw his past deeds play out before his eyes and he came to himself as a role model or a potential role model. Youth reported that this shows him he has to be there for himself in the future and that he has the ability to change.

Youth reported seeing a needle in front of him and how he is struggling with not using drugs.

Youth reported seeing two roads to travel down and that he has to make a decision about which one.

Youth reported that when they repeated “I am fair to myself”, they had trouble giving themselves a break.

“Caused me to see the person who was being unfair to me and think about fairness on both sides.”

“Hey, what were you guys doing in there with your eyes closed?” Youth stated this and asked to join group next time.

“Do you know what astral projection is? I felt like I was really up in a tree. Like I was really there.”

“When I let trust in, it was my mom. We had a long conversation.”

“I had trouble seeing trust. I didn’t see anything.” A peer responded by saying, “maybe that is because you don’t trust anyone”.

“I feel like a huge weight has been lifted”

“When I imagined myself on top of a mountain I looked down at our city and thought of how what I normally think of as big seemed completely different.”

“The lake I imagined was really clear and blue. I couldn’t believe how real it was.”

Resources

Sustainable Happiness: The Mind Science of Well-Being, Altruism, and Inspiration – Joe Loizzo

The Lineage Project

  

smoke

 

As I sat taking part in a Tibetan Buddhist smoke offering in celebration of Chokhur Duchen (Buddha’s first teaching) today, I thought of a recent conversation I had with one of the at-promise kids with whom I work. This youth came into the facility resisting everything he encountered. He relayed to me, often with great arrogance, the fights he had been in and the people he had harmed. He was what I would consider extremely manipulative as well, reporting all sorts of mental health phenomena that he would later have an entirely different story about. He was due to be moved to a treatment facility soon and would talk quite a bit about how he didn’t want to go and how he would scheme and bargain to get what he wanted out of a situation. I see kids like this often and I chalk it up to them being seriously let down and disappointed many times by the adults in their lives. I often jump through hoops for these kids, so that they are able to feel like at least at some point in their lives one adult cared enough to listen and be on their side, even if they are doing something “wrong”. There is a general sense of injustice underneath what is perceived as manipulation and wrongdoing that runs deep and is based in a greater truth. It isn’t the thing they did to land them in trouble that we should see, but the entire conspiracy that led to that point. I am firm on the notion that it is a conspiracy that we all participate in, from the personal, family, community and on up to the institutional and governmental level. We really aren’t doing enough to notice these kids and give them the compassionate and wise attention they need. Punishment doesn’t work and I do my best to help these kids personally navigate these systems of punishment they find themselves in. With this background information in mind, this kid sat before me and was doing everything in his power to stay in a deeply negative mind state. On one occasion he even stated to me that he would rather go to prison than receive help of any kind.

A few days ago, I went to do a weekly session with him and he seemed different. He seemed lighter in his gait and posture and let me know that he was going to accept an alternative to prison. He brought to me some poems he had written and a picture he had drawn. He admitted to me that he had been lying about some of the mental phenomena he was reporting and that he really just wanted attention. He performed a rap he had written and talked about his plans to do his best wherever he ends up. I asked him what had changed and he let me know that he came up with something as he sat in his room thinking. He said on the first night he decided he wanted to be peaceful and stay in control of himself. This was a response he felt came from someone telling him he would get another chance. He then commented, that after that he realized how negative he was all of the time and wondered what it would be like if he practiced treating people with respect. He said that he started being respectful to staff and peers, making sure to use the words please and thank you. He let me know that at first, it wasn’t very genuine and that he was simply doing it as an experiment. He then described what sounded like Diane Fosha’s notion of “good spiraling” from her study of the psychology of change and transformation. “Good spiraling” is undoing aloneness and jumpstarting connection and positive feeling so that healing may occur.  This helps build resiliency and healthy relastionships that before seemed impossible.  He commented that after being respectful for a while he started to really feel it in a heartfelt way. He then let me know that he was able to make plans for his treatment and look at it as an opportunity.

This brings me back to the smoke offering and how I sat and watched the clouds billow around me. The smoky pit was taking the stuff of ordinary life, even things considered poisons and transforming them into purified food energy for all beings of the earth and space. As Lama Yeshe said, “It is precisely because our present life is so inseparably linked with desire that we must make use of desire’s tremendous energy if we wish to transform our life into something transcendental.” This kid was able to take the energy of his negativity and utilize it in non-destructive ways. He didn’t have to spend long hours in meditation, he applied the very simple practice of seeing himself and others as worthy of respect. It is a bit like what we describe in the Buddhist tradition as seeing all beings as Buddhas. This troubled youth used words and phrases to convey the message of respect whenever the opportunity presented itself with everyone around him. He transformed the destructive behaviors and emotions into positive ones. Like the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen we breathe in the dull smoke of negativity, transform it at the heart and send out the transformed billowing clouds as compassionate energy for all beings. This energy creates a spiral that moves us in new directions. This is how the phenomena of change and healing works. This isn’t just a way for us to bliss-out and forget about our misguided systems and institutions of punishment, this is where the conspiracy may begin to radically unravel.

Resources

The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change – Diane Fosha

Introduction To Tantra: the Transformation of Desire – Lama Yeshe

Terrarium

 

This project will take a multitheoretical approach to developing self-compassion and coping for at-risk youth. These approaches will be conducted in the form of an experiential and psychoeducational group. The use of the concept of “driving all blame into one” in Chekawa’s Sevenfold Mind Training will consist of driving blame into the biopsychosocial model. Gilbert’s use of the biopsychosocial model in Compassion Focused Therapy will be utilized as a reference point. Additionally, Gilbert’s exercises and view of self-compassion and compassion for others will be implemented. Bilateral stimulation and forms of trauma or shaking-off exercises will be part of the group experience. We will also practice deep breathing, stretching and imagery meditation. The order of training events will be roughly based on Van Melik’s Lineage Project approach.

At-promise youth are faced with multiple biosocial and personal issues. One issue that often comes up is the use of blame and shame as a disordered coping skill. This psychoeducational and experiential group will help youths to understand the biopsychosocial model and develop coping and integration skills. Initially there will be a brief discussion of group rules and how the hour will proceed. The group will be presented with a topic or issue of difficulty, which will be chosen from one of Gilbert’s CFT exercises or a common trend in coping difficulty youth experience in detention. An example of such topic may be feeling wronged or unfairly treated by someone. There will be time to reflect on and visualize the topic of discussion. Each youth will discuss their experience of the topic or question asked.

They will then visualize the issue or a similar issue while doing a bilateral stimulation exercise in order to help soften around defenses and fears. A brief set of simple but rigorous Tsigjong (Qigong) exercises will be presented, in order to get energy moving around the body and shake off any remaining stress. This will be followed by some deep breathing and yogic stretching. The deep breathing and stretching is a mimicking of the relaxation process animals use after a stressful event to reintegrate and continue on with their daily lives. The difficulty initially imagined will be visualized again via guided meditation, but this time the youths will take a caring approach to the narrative and imagine themselves responding to their difficulty with self-care and compassion as well as compassion for others involved in the visualization, if appropriate to the topic. The group will wrap up with a brief silent meditation.

If allowed, a brief self-compassion and or coping assessment will be used at the beginning and end of four weeks of group. The object of the group is not to delve deeply into trauma, but to handle everyday concerns with self-compassion and skillful coping. The groups will need to be brief and only build on each other for three or four weeks, due to the unpredictable lengths of time youths spend in group therapy. Each weekly group should be able to stand by itself. I hope to gain from this project a sense of how these youths view difficulties and determine helpful ways for them to cope with these difficulties. I would also like to better understand the roll compassion plays in their daily coping. My thoughts are that using a combination of efficacious and researched treatments in a new way will yield changes in their ability to cope and increase the experience of self-compassion.

The first step in executing this project will involve researching literature on bilateral stimulation and other physical coping mechanisms. It will be important to have a basic understanding of the tools and techniques used as well as research on possible outcomes. CFT literature and techniques will also be reviewed to get an understanding of the model and some of its biopsychosocial influences. This will take about one month. Based on what is gleaned from the research phase the next step is to design group specifics. The purpose is not to limit creativity, but to provide a framework for creativity. This will take another month as successive groups and topics will need to be designed in advance.

Resources

Paul Gilbert – Mindful Compassion: How the Science of Compassion Can Help You Understand Your Emotions, Live in the Present, and Connect Deeply with Others
Chekawa – Path To Awakening: a Commentary on Ja Chekawa Yeshe Dorje’s Seven Points of Mind Training
Link to the Lineage Project Site