We are very excited to bring to you our new Spiritual Explorations (SPEX) course! At the heart of this new curriculum is an experience-based approach in which you will be regularly engaging in spiritual practices. This teaching strategy emerges out of a belief taught by religions across the world that spiritual development best occurs as practitioners explore and integrate the intelligences of their bodies, minds, and hearts. With the help of mindfulness teacher Sangeeta Bansal, our teaching team has created the following list of practices that you will be exploring during the course.
At the end of this entry is a broad summary of what students aimed to improve in their lives by doing their practice, their chosen practice, and keys to their success in this first year that we have done this project.
Our Top Picks
These are the core practices that we want each one of you to explore in this course.
Breath-Based Practices: Mark Williams’ Three-Minute Breathing Space is a very useful way to ground yourself in in the present moment through your breath. Here is an 8-minute version.
Body-Based Practices: A body scan meditation focuses the mind’s attention on the physical body, taking us out of mental mode and into the physical body in the here and now. Here is a 6-minute body scan, a 15-minute one, and an extended 30-minute version.
Mind-Based Practices: This 8-minute Mark Williams’ audio helps you focus on sounds and thoughts.
Heart-Based Practices: The Loving Kindness Meditation is a very effective and easy way to help you stimulate positive energy towards yourself and others. Here is a script that can guide you through the LKM, a 6-minute version, a 9-minute audio by Mark Williams as well as a 13-minute online version, which also includes a script accompanying the voice recording, and a 23-minute version with piano accompaniment.
Pool of Practices
Breath-Based Practices: All spiritual systems use the breath as a means to get in touch with the body and the present moment. In many languages the word for “breath” is the same expression for “wind” or “spirit,” and in fact the breath does connect us to other living beings in the biosphere. While we are often lost in our internal monologues, distractions, worries and fears, breath awareness grounds us in the here and now, and, according to religious traditions, connects us to our Larger Selves.
- Abdominal breathing (4 m video): Sitting or laying down, bring your hand to your belly for two minutes. Visualize filling up a balloon on your belly. Also good for sleep. Two minutes will put you into relaxation mode.
- Box breathing like a Navy Seal: Inhale 4, hold 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4.
- Brain yoga: Brain yoga helps coordinate the two hemispheres of the brain and build synaptic connections between the two. These news reports share the benefits of brain yoga. Cute homemade video of two South Asian students teaching how to do super brain yoga.
- Breath Counting 1 to 10 (description)
- Breathe in for 4, hold for 7, and breathe out for 8 (video). Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 exercise leads practitioners through the practice and describes the benefits (5.5 m)
- Breathe in for 7 and out for 11 (video)
- Deep belly breathing meditation: Teacher Reggie Rae leads students through a 10-minute deep belly breathing that is frequently practiced by Tibetan Buddhists as a way to awaken the mind to a larger consciousness. Start the video at 57:40.
- Breathing in nature (video): This 10-minute guided meditation is shot in a sunny, wooded and windy scene, and includes 4 minutes of silence.
- Dynamic breathing for more energy (short video demonstration)
- TEDx: “The Power of Breath: Yoga’s Psychological Benefits” by a junior at Singapore American School
- This 22-minute Tibetan Pranayama audio with accompanying article leads meditators through a breathing practice.
- A Zen breathing technique is described in some detail.
Body-Based Practices: These practices build awareness of the body, calm the energetic system by activating the relaxation response, increase “being mode” rather than “doing mode,” and rejuvenate physical health.
- Body scan: 3-minute, 10 m version,
- Chocolate Meditation (5 m audio) (written description)
- FOFBOC practice (Feet on floor, bum on chair) (5 m audio)
- The mindful movement practice narrated by Mark Williams (8 m audio), which includes the “picking fruit” visualization.
- This 20-minute guided body scan focuses on thoughts and feelings as well as the body (audio).
- Mindful Walking: Description, 9 reasons to try, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches how to do mindful walking. Here is a description of mindful walking by Sri Lankan monk Bhante G.
- On Being You: Actor Bill Murray (3 m)
- Prostrations: This 5-minute video shows practitioners how to do Buddhist prostrations.
- Self-compassion body scan (23 m)
- Yoga: Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal’s gentle and introspective yoga sessions are a highly effective way to get into the body. See this 12-minute practice designed to develop self-compassion and courage, this 20-minute breathing and yoga practice, this 23-minute activation of motivation yoga practice, this 21-minute restorative yoga practice, . Her TED talk on “Making Stress Your Friend” has been viewed more than 5 million times. If you like her style, try this 19-minute guided meditation practice.
- Yoga: 15-minute sunrise yoga program.
3. Mind-Based Practices: These practices help students regulate thoughts and emotions, learn how to redirect the mind at will, enable thinking traps to be observed, and strengthen the ability of practitioners to free themselves from these traps. We explore 3 types of mind-based meditation practices.
1. Concentration: the goal of concentration (or closed) meditation is to train the mind to focus. See this guide how to do a concentration practice.
- Using a mantra is a form of a concentrative practice. This is an 8-minute guided meditation using the Sanskrit word “Om” as a mantra.
- Transcendental Meditation is a popular, mantra-based meditation technique. Learn about the benefits of TM in this 2-minute video.
- This 7-minute video leads Christians through the biblical Aramaic phrase “Maranatha” (“Come Lord”) as a mantra-based meditation.
- Chanting is a form of a concentrative practice. Here is a video that leads the viewer through the chanting of the popular chant Om Mani Padme Hum 108 times. This Korean Buddhist chant Kwan Seom Bosal, which focuses on compassion, is well-known, and can be listened to in this audio. To get a sense of the racing, vibrational power of collective chanting, listen to parts of this Buddhist chant.
- This short video demonstrates how to use prayer beads with the Hari Krishna chant. George Harrison of the Beattles popularized chanting of Hari Krishna in the late 1960’s.
- Here an HKIS Hindu student chants while doing a fire ritual at his family’s shrine. Another HKIS Hindu student bathes the gods at her home altar.
- So Hum practice: Breath in with “so” and think “I am,” and breath out with “hum,” which means “that,” or the rest of the world. This meditation connects your inner self to the world outside of the self. Here is an 18-minute So Hum 18-minute guided mantra practice combined with asking important questions of the self, such as, “Who am I?”
- Gatha is a chant for relaxation and present moment awareness, using a 4 or 6-breath cycle. In your mind say the first phrase on the in-breath and the second on the outbreath, etc.
I know I’m breathing in (in-breath)
I know I’m breathing out (outbreath)
Breathing in I smile (in-breath)
Breathing out I relax (outbreath)
(I dwell in the present moment – in-breath)
This moment is a precious moment – outbreath)
2. Awareness: the goal of awareness meditation practices is to gain insight into the nature of the mind and reality by observing how the mind works. We see reality as it is rather than as experienced through the filter of the mind. It is common in awareness practices for meditators to label thoughts as they arise – “angry thoughts” or “busy ideas,” etc.
- Here is a 12-minute guided vipassana video, and a 15-minute meditation with a bell that sounds every 5 minutes.
- This 10-minute video shares one person’s experience with a 10-day Vipassana retreat.
- This fascinating documentary called “Doing Time, Doing Vipassana” takes viewers inside an Indian prison where 10-day retreats occur with prisoners.
3. Surrender: the goal of this meditation technique is even simpler than an awareness practice. Rather than watching or labeling thoughts, this practice simply lets go of any thoughts, emotions, or sensations that arise by using a word (like “hope” or “focus” or the name of a deity) to bring the practitioner back to a state of open awareness.
- A Christian form of this type of meditation is called Centering Prayer. Christian monk Thomas Keating gives this 7-minute introduction to Centering Prayer in this video clip.
- A related surrender practice is called burning a mandala in which art pieces are created in order to be destroyed. A Christian nun explains more about why Buddhist monks burn mandalas in this article.
- This 6-minute meditation on death and impermanence asks you to let go of everything – your possessions, your achievements, your friends and family – and realize the truth of emptiness. Here is a 9-point death awareness meditation script that explores the same territory but in far greater detail.
Heart-Based Practices: These practices help activate and purify emotions in the heart so that they become less self-focused and more compassionate.
- Affectionate breathing (21 m audio practice)
- Awe can be a practice of recognizing the beauty and majesty of the natural world, as in this 4-minute video. A UC Berkeley researcher explain in this interview the benefits of awe. Check out this powerful 3-minute exploration on awe by Jason Silva.
- Calligraphy can be used as a spiritual practice, such as in this student project.
- Difficult Emotions: This 15-minute audio meditation helps practitioners to deal with difficult emotions
- Exploring Difficulties: This Mark Williams’ 10-minute audio focuses on exploring difficulties.
- A Heartfulness-Based Body Scan by Robert Sardello (script)
- The Loving Kindness Meditation is very effective – see several examples in the Heart-Based Practices at the top of this entry. One student used a Loving Kindness Meditation along with playing improvised piano pieces as a way to move through her sadness of experiencing the Foshan orphanage. See this fine article on 18 Science-Based Benefits of Loving Kindness Meditation.
- Self-Compassion: 4-minute Video on the power of self-compassion
- Short Self-Compassion Break when having a difficult day (script or audio)
- Soothing Touch meditation: comforting oneself through this 3-minute meditation.
- Teaching teenagers about self-compassion.
- Tonglen: This 11-minute practice of breathing in negativity and breathing out compassion is led by Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. She also explains how to do Tonglen in this article.
Just Do It: 9th Graders and Spiritual Practices
Our new Spiritual Explorations has made a dramatic paradigm shift in its approach to religion instruction: the goal is spiritual experience over any kind of course content or analysis. This led to another surprising commitment: despite our limited class time, each period contains some form of spiritual practice. We set up the curriculum so that 2/3 of the way through the semester course, students choose their own spiritual practice to implement and monitor over about a two-week time period. This blog entry summarizes what students learned from this spiritual practices project.
Students chose an area in their life that they wanted to change, and then selected a spiritual practice that helped them to works towards this goal. Here are the major themes that emerged from my two classes of SPEX 9 students who did this project this year.
What do I need to change about myself? (in order of importance)
- Less worry and stress
- Less procrastination
- More focus
- Be present
- Connect Body and Heart
- Dampen Inner Critic
- Slow Down
- Let go of Perfectionism
What did I do and how did it go?
- Loving Kindness Meditation (13)
- Drawing (10)
- Conscious Walking (8)
- Death meditation (6)
- Meditation (5)
- Conscious eating (2)
- Letter writing (2)
- Others: Bowing, fasting, prayer, non-reactivity, photography
- Consistency is the key.
- Focus is necessary for life success.
- Need to find a practice that suits you.
- Doing something I enjoy is important for mental health
- They hope to continue in the future
Students have an innate ability to self-regulate their body-mind-heart self, as can be seen from the results of this spiritual practices project.
- To see exemplary student spiritual practices projects, go to this blog link.
- Listen here to a 10-minute meditation that explores the three centers of the body, mind, and heart.
- All eight of the Mark Williams’ meditations can be accessed here.