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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.

Mindfulness in Schools

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A poster at JFK Elementary with students thoughts on how mindfulness helps them in their lives.

We had a very rewarding year, working with teachers and students as they learned and  used mindfulness in the classroom. When we talked to the students about the experiences they had while using our program they always impressed us with their thoughtfulness.

Here are a few examples  our teachers caught while working in the classroom:

Frances Brown, mindfulness teacher:

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I asked the students in Mrs. Hodgson’s kindergarten class at Flynn Elementary School “How has mindfulness helped you?” A little girl put up her hand and said, “Last week I had a bad dream and I got up scared.” I asked her what she did and she said “I sat up in bed and did mindfulness, it helped me to calm down and I went back to sleep”. I was amazed that she was able to use mindfulness on her own so skillfully.

I was observing my co-teacher work in Mrs. Cronin’s 2nd grade class at Flynn Elementary School.  One student reported, “Last week someone made me upset, I had to move away from the person to find a quiet space where I could calm down.  I focused on my breath to help me relax and I felt better.”

I thought “Wow” how powerful for him to recognize what to do instinctively.  I was impressed.  They have only been learning mindfulness for the last 7 weeks in the classroom.

Jeff Hill, mindfulness teacher:

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I was working in a first grade class and asked the students to tell me about some of the ways they have been mindful in their lives. Here are a few things they said to me: “When I was with my brother I realized I was getting mad. So, I used mindfulness to stay calm and walked away. What did you feel after you walked away? 
”I felt awesome.”

“When I’m mindful helps me think about ways to make other people happy. When my parents are sick I’ll make them something.”

“I use mindfulness to help other people in my neighborhood. It makes me happy.”

These young students and all the students we work with throughout the year have really inspired us. As they practice mindfulness they are able to apply it to their daily lives in a very meaningful way. Listening to their stories we know that mindfulness has had a tremendous impact and is helping them develop skills that will make them successful in all areas of their lives.

Elizabeth’s Essay

Elizabeth

Mindfullness Practice

I like Mindfullness because it’s a part in the day that let’s you move to a different world with different thought and answers. Minfullness helps me at school when I’m stressing over work, I can just take a breath and relax. Mindfullness helps me with my friends if they anoy me I can take the good and the bad. Mindfulllnes helps me with work when it gets to hard I can think of the good other than the bad.

Skills: Focus, Explore , and Welcome
Techniques: Relax, Dream, and Listen

Charlie’s Essay

Charlie
Mindfullness

Mindfullness is a program with many skills and techniques. I enjoy Mindfullness a lot. I enjoy Mindfullness because it relaxes me and gets me ready for my day. Mindfulllness helps me in school by helping me focus. This also helps my teachers teach me better and more easily. Mindfullness helps me with my friends because it talks about caring for others and when I do care for others I am a better friend. Mindfullness helps me get my work done because I focus more on my work and not other things. Mindfullness is very helpfull and I enjoy it.

~ Charlie

Mollie

Mollie

Mindfulness

I have fun with Mindfulness and I think that kids should have an opening to trying it. It’s a program that has techniechs and skills helping kids with School work, friends, and doing your work in a relaxed way. I think Mindfulness is a great way to be relaxed.

Mindfullness helps me with school work and friend relationships. One time I got distracted on a test and I thought about how Stressed I was and how un-focused. So I relaxed and got back to work thanks to Mindfulness. I’m so happy mindfulness helps me so much.

Some kids have a hard time and laugh so mindfulness is here to help.
PS Just to know sometimes it can be a little bit silly!

Nora

Nora

For mindfulness to really work everybody needs to partisipate. Many people don’t understand mindfulness so they don’t even try. Many people just think of mindfulness as a talking computer and don’t explore mindfulness and see how mindfulness can help unite a whole community. Mindfulness helps me a lot of the time at school to welcome distractions and when I am frustrated to relax. For example, Just a few days ago I was doing a math test and I used a mindful tequneque and I was able to finnish my test fealing pretty good about myself. Mindfulness helps me but you need to partisipate in mindfulness to make it work.

Skylar

Skylar

I really like mindfulness because it teaches you lots of techniques for when you get bored or distracted in school and with your friends. I think that mindfulness calms you down in the morning. The mindful message always has nice sayings about how you can help yourself and others stay focused and get along. Mindfullness tells you how to bring your focus back when you get distracted, which is very helpful during school because when I get distracted I can always refocus. Mindfullness also helps me with friends. It gives Ideas of how to get along. Mindfullness is a really good way to start off the morning.

Lily

Lily

I like and don’t like mindfulness on and off. It sometimes relaxes me but it also can get very boring. I helps tell me that if I have confidence and express myself and listen I can help myself and others. But when we do things and techniques we have already done its not very exciting. I can use the techniques to calm down on tests and things I’m having troble doing. Some of my friends take this seriously but others giggle and laugh at things mindfulness says. I try my best to focus and to bring my attincion back. I tence my body and let it go to help me work. In some ways it helps me but sometimes it just annoys me alot.

Sophie

Sophie

Yes and no. I like mindfulness because it gives me a time to relax. Also, I learn new solutions to problems with friends, family, etc. Next, sometimes I get tense in the morning. Mindfulness helps get rid of the tension. Another example is that mindfulness makes me feel better about things I’m nervous about. One reason that I don’t like mindfulness is that the people talking in it do not always have enough expression in their voices. I feel like they are monotone. Another reason I like mindfulness is that it gives me a chance to close my eyes, as I’m not a morning person. Overall, mindfulness is very helpful to me.

Mindfulness helps me with school, my friends, and doing my work. It helps me with school by relaxing me so I can think more steadily. Also, it helps me with my friends by giving me answers to my problems. I don’t get into as many fights as I used to. Next, it helps me do my work by giving me strategies to focus, so my thoughts don’t wander. All in all, mindfulness is a great improvement in my life.

Amanda

Amanda

1) Do you like mindfulness? Why or why not?
I do like mindfulness. I like it because it helps me calm down and relax. It also helps me think of important things and maybe how to fix them. It helps me to Explore different things. It helps me to listen to new sounds. It helps me feel happy. It helps me feel good about myself. It even makes me laugh sometimes. It helps me realize that mindfulness does help you, a little bit, even if sometimes it feels a little silly. It helps me to try stuff.

2) How does mindfulness help you at school? With your friends? Doing your work?
At school, if I’m bored, it helps me to try to fix it (although I haven’t yet). It helps me to learn new things and Explore. It doesn’t really help me with my friends. It doesn’t really help me with my work either.

Skills:
Focus, Explore, Welcome

Techniques:
Listen, Relax, Dream