Every evening after dinner and bath time, Elizabeth Rees, a Mount Vernon mother of three, instructs her children to lie on the floor keeping as still as possible. With soft tones, she recites a phrase, slowly and purposefully. These moments of serenity allow her family to release the chaos of the day.
“It is such as still and lovely time,” said Rees, associate rector of St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and cofounder of the Center for Spiritual Deepening, both in Mount Vernon. “My children long for the stillness and being present in the moment as much as I do. When we’re in the thick of things and we’re schlepping and on the run, there is a temptation to be disconnected. The mindfulness idea is being present in the moment and finding the joy in the moment.”
Such mindfulness meditation practices have been credited with improving focus, boosting happiness and reducing stress. A study by researchers at the University of Miami found that short mindfulness practices improved students’ ability to focus; while research by the University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain found a meditation to be effective in relieving stress.
“The name can make it sound like a huge unattainable concept, but essentially, mindfulness meditation is paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment without judgment,” said Sandra Carr, Ph.D., a family therapist and meditation teacher in Bethesda, Md.
“Meditation has been around for thousands of years, but for the last decade the practice has become more and more widely accepted as the overall benefits of meditation continue to be studied,” said Jill Gattone, R.N., a registered nurse in Marymount University's Student Health Center who leads Mindfulness Meditation sessions for students.
“Current literature reveals the potential for Mindfulness Meditation to not only help with focus and concentration, but may also positively effect brain structure, improve relationships, reduce stress and even increase immune function.”
“We live in a world where we are constantly ‘plugged in.’ We look around and see students spending hours on their laptops and smartphones … Facebook, Instagram and Netflix,” said Gattone. “This way of life can leave us feeling exhausted and stressed. It is really important that we all take time to quiet our minds every day.”
For families who want to begin a meditation practice, Gattone recommends a guided session “… where someone is leading you through the process. There are many apps that can guide you through a short 5 minute meditation, or there are classes that can be a good way to start as well,” she said.
Starting with short, uncomplicated mindfulness sessions can make the initial process less intimidating. “Like physical exercise, you may find that it is best to start with a short 5 minute meditation and gradually increase,” said Gattone, whose own practice consists of beginning and ending her day with a 10-minute meditation. “It can be as simple as finding a quiet spot, sitting in a comfortable position with your spine straight, focus on your breath, clear your mind and be aware of what is happening in the present moment.”
Establishing a daily mindfulness practice offers an opportunity to build an arsenal of tools that can be used to find peace in the midst of frenzied schedules, says Sara VanderGoot, a meditation teacher and cofounder of Mind the Mat Pilates & Yoga in Arlington and Alexandria.
“Families with children can benefit from even a short meditation practice [like] two to five minutes of breath and concentration daily, if that is all mom and dad can fit in,” she said. “[It] creates the habit of being able to return to that space when difficult feelings arise [like] anger or frustration and find space between feelings and reactions.”
A daily practice makes it easier to remain calm in a chaotic situation, said Rees. “For me, when I find I’m in those hectic moments and just about to lose it and don’t have the patience, that’s where I most need to stop and take some deep breaths,” she said. “Having the presence of mind to say ‘I need to stop and breathe and not react right away’ is a great life skill.”
VanderGoot recommends simple meditation techniques to use with children daily. “Mantra is a meditation tool where words are repeated to create change,” she said. “Repeating a mantra daily with your child, such as ‘I am happy, I am healthy’ or ‘I am happy, I am steady’ each morning when the child wakes up ingrains that positive belief in the child's mind and in turn positively influences that child's behavior.”
Creating positive beliefs about oneself creates a sense of self-awareness. “This is very useful and practical … especially [for] those who live a hectic life, and it doesn't take much time,” said VanderGoot.