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7 Tips for Hot and Cold Mindfulness

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April Light by Laura McKelvie

It was a strange winter here in Vermont.

New to the area, I was told to expect many feet of snow on the ground until late April or early May. While gray clouds hinted that an infamous Northeast blizzard was just around the corner, we were never truly inundated. Periodic warm days often melted the snow completely. A bout of blue skies and the intoxicating smell of fresh grass in late March left me confident there would be no more winter. But early April brought enough snow to shovel and I snapped the photo here to commemorate my faulty prediction.

I reflected then about how this on-again off-again winter provided a perfect metaphor for my mindfulness practice. Lately it’s passed through periods of hot and cold, so to speak. Some days my practice has a momentum of its own—I feel settled and concentrated without much effort. But the very next day, contrary to my hope I’ll have another easy session, I struggle with distraction and low motivation; it feels cold, like nothing is happening.

Many of you are familiar with this seesaw in your practice. Often when we struggle during a mindfulness practice, we ask ourselves what we are doing wrong and might even jump to blaming ourselves for…for…something. We must be doing something wrong otherwise we wouldn’t be so distracted. Right?

Nope.

Of course it’s good to review if we are actually trying to follow through with our technique. But it’s also just as important as it is difficult to remember this: the quality of mindfulness practice ebbs and flows. That’s just the way it goes. The mind wanders naturally and we can’t control that. As long as we set our intention to do a technique, such as focusing on our breath, and honestly try, then we are practicing correctly, even if we get distracted often.

I know this, yet even with years of mindfulness practice under my belt, I still sometimes catch myself slipping into judgments. “Why am I so distracted and tense?! I should be relaxed and focused!”

We are so used to having judgmental thoughts that they can happen automatically. Instead of adding fire with yet more judgmental thoughts, I shift to being kind to myself and try one or a combination of these strategies: 

  1. Take a breath.
  2. Remind yourself that harsh judgments about our experience is not what helps us get into a calm, concentrated state.
  3. Congratulate yourself for noticing the distraction. Realizing we’re distracted and coming back to our technique is what builds concentration. Noticing distraction is the solution to the problem of low concentration.
  4. Open up to the idea that this session might remain challenging and deep concentration might not happen.
  5. Avoid comparing it to other mindfulness sessions that went “better.” Be where you are now.
  6. Zoom out. Try to incorporate the distracted state into your observation. Get a global sense of how it feels on the mental, emotional, and physical spaces to be distracted. Is your mind racing like a river or gently meandering around some curves? How tight or calm is your body? Stay with this global observation for the remainder of the session or gently return to your technique after a few moments.
  7. Gently return to your technique. Use as little mental activity as possible.

Developing concentration by staying on a focus point is very important. But so much tension can build up around this goal that we loose sight of the fact that accepting ourselves when mindfulness practice proves difficult is just as important. Sometimes your practice will be going well and you’ll feel so settled it’s like you’re on fire. Many times it will feel like a cold, slow slog. Accepting this fluctuation builds the oft touted but elusive non-judgmental component of mindfulness that’s key for integrating the mindful skills we learn on the cushion into our daily lives.

Being distracted for most of our mindfulness practice session isn’t what we plan on, especially if things have been going well in previous sessions. But if we work with the distracted mind skillfully, it’s just one more thing to observe and relax around. Next time you have a challenging session, try some of the tips and see what happens.

New Year’s Goals: Tips to Stay Motivated

Snow Berries by Laura McKelvie

With the new year comes a desire to do something different. It might be a fitness goal, a habit to break, or hobby to pursue. There’s an excitement to tackle this challenge and motivation is high.

And then…it’s February and we realize we’ve already fallen short of our goal. How did that happen? Many of us, myself included, often start with a big thing we want and don’t map out how to get there. Here are five tips to help you get there.

Assessment

The first step is to assess your life and what will make it easy or difficult to achieve your goal. Let’s say, for example, your goal is to increase the amount of time you practice mindfulness. Ask yourself some exploration questions. What motivates you to practice? What obstacles might prevent you from practicing more? A busy morning getting kids to school? Feeling really tired after work? What attitude will you take if you don’t achieve your goal for a day or two? Anticipating possible roadblocks helps us plan ahead and then be creative with how to meet the challenges.

Take Small Steps First

Many of us forget to practice what we ask our students to practice: set positive and realistic goals. Goals like, “I’ll never eat sweets again!” or “I’ll exercise an hour every day,” sound great at first, but they are too big if we are starting from scratch. We can’t run a marathon if we can’t yet jog a mile.

We need to build up to larger goals by finding success in a series of smaller, easier steps. For example, perhaps your goal is to practice mindfulness for 30 minutes a day. That would be great, wouldn’t it? But maybe your assessment revealed that mornings with the family are very busy and it’s unlikely you will have a block of time to yourself. Or perhaps you are too drained after work to practice. Can you commit to practicing in your car for just a few minutes before or after work? What about setting aside just 10 minutes during lunch to do mindful walking? (That could help you meet your fitness goals, too.) Focus on accomplishing these smaller goals and feel good about completing them.

Once you are able to gain consistency with smaller steps, then you can use the momentum to expand the goal.

Accountability

An accountability system helps us keep goals. Are there other people who have a similar goal you can check in with? Can you ask someone to follow up with you about your progress? Some people try announcing their goals to family and friends to create motivation to live up to what they said. You can also try setting reminders on your phone. Take some time now to sprinkle the reminders throughout all the months of 2016 so they’ll be there to support you consistently.

Get Creative

Think about creative ways to support and motivate yourself when you don’t feel like doing your goal. With your mindfulness practice, for example, how could you bring to mind your reason for practicing? Could you hold an object representing your motive or look at a photo of people you love and want to help with your practice? These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg and there are many ways you can make mindfulness, and your other goals, fun and creative. Adding fun and other positive emotions makes goals less daunting, thus allowing us to stay motivated.

Gentleness

As the weeks go by, you’ll notice triumphs and setbacks. If you fall short of your goal, it can feel very discouraging. But if we use the same attitude we have during a mindfulness practice, and treat a setback like we do a distraction, we are open to moving forward. If you notice your mind has wandered, or in this case you haven’t meet your goal recently, congratulate yourself for noticing. Then gently bring your intention back to meeting the goal at the next opportunity. If we view a setback as a fresh chance to start again, then it’s not really a setback but a growth opportunity. With this kind of mindset we can maintain the motivation we have in January throughout the year.

Take a few moments to think about your goals for this year and how you can work with them. See how you can break them up into smaller steps and get creative about how to accomplish them. Work on those steps and congratulate yourself as you succeed. Find an accountability system that works for you. Be gentle on yourself if you have an off day. These tips will help you keep momentum going and then keeping your goals becomes more and more automatic.

Changing Seasons

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Here at our headquarters in Johnson, Vermont, we are witnessing the change of seasons.The vibrant colors of New England fall have faded into forests of empty grey trees. Though some plants are stubbornly holding on to their green, not yet willing to change, many of us are ready for this transition. There’s a sense of slowing down, storing up energy to last us through the upcoming months of cold. It’s clear winter will unfold at its own pace and all we have to do is wait for it.

 

How nice would it be to have such relaxed, seamless transitions in the classroom? It’s true that sometimes one activity flows smoothly into the next and before we know it, the bell has rung and everyone leaves satisfied with their hard work. Other times there is a lot of disruption moving to new activities or classrooms. Students and teachers can feel like those stubborn green plants in November, slow to embrace the present moment and the current subject of focus.

 

One way to approach classroom transitions is to accept that sometimes they will be bumpy and that doesn’t mean something is wrong. As teachers we have such high expectations of ourselves. If students are sullen or goofing off, we often feel it’s a reflection of us, of something we aren’t doing well. But when we open up to variability, we start to see that it’s natural. It’s not possible that everyone will be on the same page all the time. Accepting that there is this fluctuation can help us stay calm during difficult transitions and truly appreciate the times when class time flows effortlessly.
Learning to hold space for students to transition at a different pace is a great challenge AND we can find strength in our mindfulness practice. It’s been said time and time again, but taking a deep breath helps us slow down so we can be present with what is actually happening as opposed to what we wish were happening. We can use this pause to consider that there’s something admirable and beautiful about students showing their color, so to speak, when the world around them is demanding they move into a new phase. Maybe they are still digesting something from a previous lesson, or maybe they want to express their individuality. The practice for us is to learn how to breathe and dance alongside them.