Monthly Archives: November 2013

Giving Thanks: 5 Rituals from around the Globe

November 27th, 2013


I am always curious about the traditional rituals celebrated by other cultures and set out exploring. On this Thanksgiving, I’d like to share with you five examples of rituals used to mark the passage of time, celebrate life, and give thanks for the harvest that sustains them.

1. Nuts to you!
When my son was little we had a yearly ritual of visiting a friend’s neighborhood to see the “nuts-guy” on Halloween. Instead of offering candy when he opened the door, he would scoop a large handful of nuts (in their shells) from a large bowl just inside the doorway and throw them at us shouting “Nuts to you!” and slam the door. We loved it! It always sent us into spasms of laughter because it was so weird, and unlike our expectations of a traditional Trick-or-Treat experience.

Over the years, I have periodically wondered what ever became of the nuts-guy and why in the world he would do that. While doing some reading about the traditions of giving thanks in cultures around the world, I came across an interesting ritual in observance of St. Martin’s Day, celebrated in Malta. On the Sunday nearest to November 11, the Maltese hand out bags of nuts of various kinds, (and sweets) to children celebrating St. Martin’s Day, known as Il-Borża ta’ San Martin, “St Martin’s Bag.” Mystery solved, the nuts-guy was a cranky guy from Malta.


The feast of St. Martin is traditionally celebrated on November 11, and had its beginning in France, later spreading to Germany, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. St. Martin was known as a friend of children and a patron of the poor, and the feast coincides with celebrations to mark the beginning of harvest. So what if the nuts-guy was a little early.

2. Children’s Festival of Lanterns
Another mystery was solved last week in this very same vein of questioning, as I encountered my very first “Children’s Festival of Lanterns” here in Germany called Martinsfeuer.


Children from all over the area swarmed into the center of the city all carrying paper lanterns and of course, wearing a few glow-in-the-dark articles of clothing. The children walk in processions carrying lanterns, which they made in school, often painted with the face of the sun, and sing Martin Songs.

The trams stopped running their usual routes to accommodate the masses of illuminated little beings, wrapped up in winter gear, eagerly anticipating a huge bonfire in the central marketplace at the end of the evening.

As our tram crawled along at a snails’ pace I looked out the window and asked my husband ‘What’s that all about?’ He only knew that he had done that as a child and that it was a very old tradition that happens every year at this time. I, on the other hand, needed to know.

Martinmas is the beginning of winter and is celebrated at harvest time, and in the wine producing regions it is the time when the newly produced wine is ready for drinking. It is also a time marking the end of winter preparations, and includes the bounty of the harvest. The feast is very closely related to the American and Canadian ritual of Thanksgiving.

American Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of October, also had its roots in religious traditions, and like Martinmas, is celebrated in a secular manner as well. It sprung out of the English Reformation as a rebellion against the large number of Catholic religious holidays. The Puritans wanted religious holidays to be replaced by either Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving. In1621, the Puritan emigrants to the New World brought these special day designations with them, and celebrated their first successful bounty at the end of the harvest season.

The French did the same in Canada in the early 17th century and brought their wonderful Joie-de-Vivre imperative along and continued to celebrate throughout the winter, sharing their food with the Native people in the area. Vive la France!

3. Jade Rabbit
In China and Vietnam the harvest festival is celebrated during a full moon in late September or early October, close to the autumnal equinox. It is a traditional time for family and relatives to come together and celebrate harmonious unions, to give thanks for a bountiful harvest and pray for a good future.
Food offerings were traditionally made in honor of the moon, and today people come together outdoors watch the moon, sometimes reflected in a teacup, as a symbol of harmony and unity.

An integral part of the moon ceremony alongside tea, is the Mooncake. The making and sharing of Mooncakes–– considered a delicacy, is an important aspect of the ritual and symbolizes the completeness and unity of the family. Mooncakes are traditionally round, about 10cm in diameter and 4-5cm thick, and filled with a rich mixture of red bean or lotus seed paste, encased in a thin crust.

Moon worship at the time of harvest is directly connected to the eternal sustenance of life and honors the deity Chang’e, a goddess who drank the elixir of immortality, and flew into the sky, transforming into the moon.

In Chinese folklore the rabbit, often referred to as Jade Rabbit is portrayed as the eternal companion of Chan’e on the moon, where he is constantly pounding the elixir of life for her in a mortar and pestle. In the poetry of the Han Dynasty, Jade Rabbit was often used in place of the word for moon.


In both China and Vietnam, illuminated lanterns have become the symbol of the harvest moon festival, and In Vietnam, children parade with colored lanterns, signifying the wish for the warmth of the sunlight to return after the colder, darker days of winter.


4. Light Trumps Dark
Another luminous goddess of light dating back to the Zoroastrian religion of ancient Persia, today’s Iran, is honored in Iran, during their harvest celebration of “thanksgiving.” The ancient Iranian festival of Mehregan, which dates before the earliest Aryans (Iranians), is still celebrated on October 2, and signifies the time of harvest and the beginning of winter.


As in most cultures around the world it is joyously celebrated with family and friends, coming together and illuminating the coming darkness of the winter months. The Iranian festival, as in Europe and Asia, traditionally culminates with bonfires and fireworks.

These “illuminations” draw their symbolism from the ancient Goddess of Light, Mithra or Mehr, who is believed to have defeated evil and triumphed over darkness. It is also a time to reflect on the eternal, regenerative spirit of the birth and rebirth cycles represented by harvesting what has has been sown.

A table is set with reverence to this sacred life-sustaining occasion, which includes; rosewater, sweets flowers, an incense burner filled with frankincense and Espand, as well as a dish of water scented with marjoram extract, and lotus seeds. The table is set with a variety of foods: apples, almonds, pomegranates, pistachios, vegetables, sweets, and flowers.

At lunchtime several rituals are observed such as throwing handfuls of lotus, sugar, plum seeds and marjoram over participants’ heads, while they embrace, and in the evening fireworks are set off and prayers are recited to receive divine blessings.

5.Thai Pongal
In South India, one of the most important festivals for the Tamils is Thai Pongal, celebrated at the end of the harvest season. Throughout India it coincides with Makara Sankranthi, the celebration of the winter harvest usually held from January 13-16.


Pongal is also the name of a rice dish, boiled with lentils and milk to signify the warming (boiling) of the season as the sun travels north towards the equinox. It is a traditional offering of gratitude to the Sun God, Surya, for a bountiful harvest. In the North of India, millions of people immerse themselves in rivers and make offerings to Surya in the form of thousands of colorful kites.

Children also participate in these rituals of thanksgiving as fruits of the harvest are collected and mixed together with flowers in a ceremony called Bhogi Pallu. Money is sometimes placed into this mixture and poured over the children who are then encouraged to collect the sweet fruit and money.

In India, the sun stands for the supreme force of life, the manifest God, Pratyaksha Brahman, who is endlessly returning to bless and sustain life.

In India, the harvest is a time to give thanks and recognition to the animal kingdom as well. Cows are thanked in a ritual called Maatu Pongal, where they are decorated with garlands of flowers, and fed special food, prepared in gratitude for their help in farming.

Cows are not the only lucky ones. Women cook and create offerings to birds in the ritual known as Kanu Pidi. They feed the birds and pray for the well being of their brothers, by placing a selection of colored rice dishes cooked with vegetables and bananas outside, and inviting the crows to descend, in the hope that brother-sister ties will remain forever strong like a family of crows.

May your harvests be bountiful, and perhaps in light of the recent terrible devastation, loss of life and the havoc created by Global Climate disasters, being thankful, and not abusive of Mother Earth, our supreme goddess, might be the best ritual of all. For a thought-provoking essay, check out:

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design / E:

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The Mindful Educator’s Bookshelf: The Mindful Brain by Daniel J. Siegel

November 21th, 2013


Sharing resources I’ve collected and created over my teaching and learning career is one of my passions. This blog series offers insights into books covering a broad range of topics contributing to mindful education, including yoga, meditation, democratic education, pedagogy, diversity, culture and more.

Choosing the first book of this series was both difficult and a “no-brainer.” There are so many stellar publications I gain inspiration from. I wanted to offer something a little off the beaten path and at the same time highlight a strong resource to get this series flowing. When I flipped though The Mindful Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel, I was reminded of the impact this book has had on my work. It’s not that the book professes some altogether new information, but it validates, with hard science, what I have always found to be true and effective in my teaching practice.

I recall reading this book on an airplane ride to teach a school yoga training in Tokyo. The book was part of my research for my master’s thesis. I wondered if my fellow passengers were aware of my constant nodding. In fact, the book has more lines highlighted, pages post-it tagged and paragraphs notated than not!

Here I will share a few key passages and commentary to help you determine if this book contains knowledge you want.

“A mindful approach to therapy and to education involves a shift in our attitude toward the individuals with whom we work. The active involvement of the student in the learning process enables the teacher to join as a collaborative explorer in the journey of discovery that teaching can be: We can embrace both knowledge and uncertainty with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and kind regard. The teacher does not have to be a source of the illusion of absolute knowledge. Together, educator and student can face the exciting challenge of developing a scaffold of knowledge that embraces the nature of knowing and its inherent context dependence and subtle sources of novelty and distinction” (Siegel).

This concept of teacher as participant rather than leader of the learning experience is one I believe can have a critical impact on teacher-student relationship in the realms of mindfulness and yoga. Abuse of power and egocentricity continue to grow in the modern iterations of these ancient practices. I believe the evolution of these disciplines will involve a new paradigm of teacher-student power dynamic. The teacher of yoga no longer spends decades in practice and study beofre taking on a few students. Most modern yoga teachers are beginners ourselves. There is no need or efficacy in pretending to have some absolute knowledge. When we enter the learning process with curiosity and wonder ourselves, we mirror those same qualities in our students.

“Reflection on the nature of one’s own mental processes is a form of “metacognition,” thinking about thinking in the broadest sense; when we have meta-awareness this indicates awareness of awareness. Whether we are engaging in yoga or centering prayer, sitting and sensing our breathing in the morning, or doing tai chi at night, each MAP [mindful awareness practice] develops this capacity to be aware of awareness…mindful awareness involves reflection on the inner nature of life, on the events of the mind that are emerging, moment by moment” (Siegel).

This “awareness of awareness” concept that Dan continues to develop throughout the book is the predecessor to self-regulation. Have you seen the movie Bully? Remember the scene where the mother of the boy being physically attacked on the bus asks him about his day. The boy is silent. He has no skills for expressing his experience. News has recently emerged about Adam Lanza, the Newtown school shooter, reporting that his mother inquired about his school life with no response from the boy. When kids and teens learn how to become aware of their awareness, they gain access to a host of skills that are paramount to mental health, including the ability to notice and express emotions. Otherwise, feelings and thoughts, especially painful ones, go unseen and end up pooling in a dark place that eventually finds expression. Unfortunately, that expression is all to often from an unconscious need for resolve, rather than a state of awareness.

“Each of us has a mind with great potential. We have the possibility of creating a world of compassion and well-being and we have the capacity for mindless violence and destruction. [A new powerful lesson] has been in the profound plasticity of the human brain. We can actually focus our minds in a way that changes the structure and function of the brain throughout our lives. As a mindset, being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgments offers a powerful path toward both compassion and inner well-being. This is what science verifies and what has been taught over thousands of years of practice” (Siegel).

What great news! We can change, or evolve, our brains from the fear-based circuitry that upholds violence to a more compassionate state that supports well-being. As Dan illustrates in detail with this book, “being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgments” creates a gap between our entrenched beliefs based on past experiences and the possibility of experiencing our lives fresh and new, with courage.

Thank you, Dan Siegel, for the critical work you do in supporting mindfulness in education. To learn more about Dan and his work, visit his website.


Abby Wills, MA, E-RYT

Shanti Generation, Co-Founder, Program Director

Abby brings her passion for developmental education and deep respect for the tradition of yoga to her work guiding youth and teachers in contemplative arts. Abby’s approach is informed by studies in social justice and democratic education at Pacific Oaks College, as well as two decades of training in yoga.


Filed under Education, Gratitude, Human Interest

20 Facts about the Philippines

November 14th, 2013


The devastating Typhoon Haiyan that has battered central Philippines has left tens of thousands of people dead and hundreds of thousands without shelter, food and basic amenities. In light of this tragic disaster here are some facts we would like to share about Philippines along with a list of organizations you may wish to contact to offer your help and support:

1. The full name of the country is Republic of the Philippines (Republika ng Pilipinas). The country was named by Spanish explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos. It was named “Philippines” in honor of King Philip II of Spain.

2. The Philippines is in Southeastern Asia; an archipelago between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea, east of Vietnam. Its size is 300,000 square kilometers or 115,831 square miles; slightly larger than Arizona.

3. 7,107 islands make up the Philippine archipelago. There are three main geographic groups of islands: Luzon, Visayas, Mindano. The Philippines is divided into three island groups, 17 regions, 80 provinces, 138 cities, and 1,496 municipalities.

4. The Philippine Islands became a Spanish colony during the 16th century; they were ceded to the U.S. in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. In 1935, the Philippines became a self-governing commonwealth. On July 4, 1946, the Republic of the Philippine attained its independence.

5. In 1942 the islands fell under Japanese occupation during World War II, and U.S. forces and Filipinos fought together during 1944-45 to regain control.

6. The city of Tacloban, the hardest hit by the Typhoon, is well-known for its role in World War II, being a major base for the US forces and the first town liberated by General Douglas MacArthur’s forces from the Japanese Imperial Forces. For a time, it served as the capital of the Philippines while Manila was under Japanese control.

7. Tacloban is also the hometown for the former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos.

8. It is a democracy with an elected president and a Congress comprising a House of Representatives and a Senate.

9. The capital is Manila with a population of 11.449 million; considered one of the world’s most densely populated cities with 43,079 people per square meter. The next largest cities in the Philippines are: Davao with 1.48 million; Cebu City with 845,000; and Zamboanga with 827,000.

10. The population of Philippines is around 100,000,000.

11. The Philippine flag is the only flag in the whole world that is displayed differently in times of peace and war. In peace time, the blue side is put on top; in war time, the red.
philippine flag

12. The country’s expenditure in education: 2.7% of GDP (2009)

13. 95.4% of the total population (age 15 and over) are literate. 95% male and 95.8% female (2008 est.)

14. There are 2 official languages in the Philippines: Filipino and English. There are 175 languages and dialects in the Philippines, and 171 of these are actively used in the country. Colloquially, the language spoken in the Philippines is referred to as Tagalog. Filipino and Tagalog are mutually intelligible and share grammar. Filipino was meant to be the standardized version of Tagalog, and is the national language of the Philippines. Calling the language “Filipino” was intended to disassociate the language with the Tagalog ethnic group. Filipino was also supposed to incorporate other indigenous language in the Philippines, but currently does not.

15. More than 80 percent are Catholic, and 5 percent are Muslim

16. The Philippines has the largest diaspora network in the world, with 11 million Filipinos living and working overseas.

17. The country is the world’s largest supplier of expat nurses.

18. The country is the “texting capital of the world,” as 350 to 400 million text messages (SMS) are sent daily by 35 million cellular phone users – more than that of the United States and Europe combined.

19. The University of Santo Tomas, which is located in the city of Manila, Philippines, was established in 1611 – twenty-five years before Harvard, the oldest university in the United States.

20. In 2012, the Philippine economy grew 6.8 percent placing it second to China among major Asian economies. Its GDP per person was about $4,500. The economy benefits from money sent home by 4 million to 5 million Filipinos working overseas.

Sources: CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department, U.S. Census Bureau, International Monetary Fund, Transparency International, World Bank, The Washington Post.

Below is a list of some of the organizations involved in the relief effort to help the people in the regions affected by the Typhoon Haiyan:

World Food Programme USA;jsessionid=6567FE8838700712A5C7325B5C0F13DA.app261a?idb=1237175804&df_id=2141&2141.donation=form1&2141_donation=form1


Red Cross

The Philippine Red Cross

World Vision

Shelter Box


The Salvation Army

Doctors Without Borders

Operation USA

Save The Children

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee

Lutheran World Relief

Catholic Relief Services

Team Rubicon

International Medical Corps

International Rescue Committee

Action Against Hunger


Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc.

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Hong Kong: 15 Facts to know about the New Secondary System

November 7th, 2013


This week I presented a session on Hong Kong’s new secondary education curriculum at the Bi-Regional NAFSA V & VI Conference (in Indianapolis, IN) and NAFSA Region XII Conference ( in San Diego, CA) .

With an increased number of senior secondary graduates competing for the same number of university place in Hong Kong in the post-A-level era, more Hong Kong students are expected to be looking abroad for higher education opportunities in the near future. This means that Hong Kong has the potential to become an increasingly attractive source of students for institutions recruiting internationally, especially when one considers their English-language ability and the comparative secondary standards in Hong Kong.

In preparation of recruitment, enrollment and evaluation of credentials of future students from Hong Kong, I hope you’ll find the brief overview on Hong Kong’s education system and its current secondary program helpful. At the end of this blog I’ve also provided a list of sources you may find useful.

As many of you know, Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom and was under its administration from 1841 to 1997. In July 1997, the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong was handed over to China by the UK. As a former colony of Britain, the Hong Kong education system was heavily influenced by the British model. It mirrored the British system of the GCE O-levels and A-levels. In the old system, students took the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) at the end of Secondary 5 (which was 11 years of primary and secondary education). Students planning to study at the university level in Hong Kong, studied two additional years known as Sixth Form *(lower 6 and upper 6) and at the of the second year, they sat for the Hong Kong Advanced Level Examination (HKALE).

Since the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, the education system has undergone a series of changes reflecting different language of instruction policies and a significant overhaul of the secondary system. Below are highlights of the changes to the senior secondary system which went into effect as of 2009/2010 and the new Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE):


1. Compulsory education is 9 years; six years of primary and three years of junior secondary.

2. Senior secondary is 3 years, and covers years/grades 10, 11, and 12.

3. Education at public schools from Primary through Senior Secondary is free.

4. Students in Grade/Year 12 prepare for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE)

5. At the end of the 12th year, students sit for examinations leading to the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE).

6. Based on the final examination results, the HKDSE offers senior secondary graduates access to a range of post-secondary, vocational and tertiary courses covered by a variety of institutions based on

7. Immediately after the 1997 Handover, the majority of local secondary schools have adopted Chinese as their medium of instruction but since then, many have reverted to an English medium instruction. In 2013, 112 out of 400 secondary schools offer English as their medium of instruction.

8. The new Hong Kong secondary curriculum was first introduced at the Secondary 4 level (Grade/Year 10) in September 2009.

9. The HKDSE examinations are held at the end of Form 6 (Grade/Year 12).

10. The HKDSE examination was administered for the first time in the summer of 2012.

11. The HKDSE curriculum includes: 4 core subjects (English, Mathematics, Chinese and Liberal Arts), 2 or 4 elective subjects from a choice of 20, completion of “other learning experiences” ( e.g. moral and civic education, community service, career-related experiences, aesthetic development and physical development).

12. Students enrolled at international schools that are not part of the Hong Kong system do not take public examinations. Many country specific international schools teach a syllabus from their own country. The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a popular program at the international schools.

13. The HKDSE is divided into 3 categories: Category A (Core & Elective); Category B (Applied Learning) and Category C (Other Language Subjects).

14. The HKDSE is awarded when Category A requirements have been met. The grades obtained in the Category A section are calculated into the overall grade average to qualify for the HKDSE. The highest score is 5 but since university entry is very competitive the authorities introduced two new starred (5**) categories to help micro-filter top students. Students with the best level 5 performances are awarded 5**. The next best performance level is 5*.


15. Examinations for Category C subjects are conducted by the UK’s Cambridge International Examinations Authority.


• Hong Kong. The Facts: Education.

Click to access education.pdf

• Hong Kong Education Bureau

• Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education

• Hong Kong : Education and Training.

• Hong Kong Education and Schooling System Explained

• Hong Kong’s Education System

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI

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