Archive for July, 2014

This is a wonderful way to introduce people to concentration practices. On the one hand it is a lot of fun, thus giving people an initial positive association with whatever practice they are learning. More substantially, it also gives them a very real and direct experience with some of the fundamental aspects of developing attentional stability via a meditation object such as the breath, a visual object, a mantra, etc.

Instructions:

  • Everyone gets into pairs and sits facing their partner.
  • Pairs have a “stare-off,” where the goal is to not break eye contact with each other. Blinking is okay, but if eye contact is broken then the person who broke it is knocked out of the game.
  • Each round is a total of three minutes. For the first minute, the stare-off happens in silence. For the last two minutes, participants can attempt to distract their ‘opponent.’  As other pairs finish (someone breaks the focus), they can also come and try to distract people still in astare-off.
  • At the end of three minutes, anyone still staring goes on to the next round.
  • After the first round, participants who were knocked out of the running still play an important role in the game. For one thing they can be assigned to different pairs as judges for the ongoing staring matches. Also, after the first minute of each round, they’ll be part of the distractions (and I’ve seen groups of such participants organize rather elaborate distractions).
  • This continues for as many rounds as you see fit. There need not be an ultimate winner. 
  • Afterwards, have an “unpacking” discussion session, focusing on questions like the following:
    • What tactics worked to help keep your gaze fixed?
    • What were the hardest types of distractions to ignore?
    • What worked for you when it came to ignoring distractions?
  • Having completed this process, you can now use the participants’ experience of the staring contest as a highly effective way to introduce them to whatever concentration practice(s) you may be teaching. For example, you could give the following instructions:

“Have a staring contest with the meditation object, using whatever tactics worked for you during the stare-off.  Notice how distractions will arise in the background. See if you can treat them in the very same way that you treated distractions during the staring contest.”

Instruction Notes:

  • You may want to keep track of the participants the way that names/teams are organized in a tournament (who’s competing with whom, who wins and goes on to the next competition, etc.).
  • When it comes to the distractions, you’ll likely need to set limits depending on the age of the participants. Some basic ones are, “no physical contact” or, “nothing within a one-foot bubble around each participant.” With teenagers up through college age, I’ve seen participants try to use sexual innuendos as a form of distraction, so a brief discussion about appropriateness could be in order.
  • If there are an odd number of people for any round, you can randomly select someone to get a “bye” to the next round.

Application Notes:

  • During the unpacking session, write some of the ideas shared by the participants in a place that you can return to in future classes—e.g. a large piece of paper you can save, a board that won’t get erased, a computer file that can be projected on a smart board, etc. This is especially true when it comes to tactics they found useful in a) staying focused on their opponents’ eyes, and b) ignoring distractions.
  • Having saved these group-generated tactics, you can return to them again and again when going over whatever concentration practices you may be teaching. Participants can select different tactics from the list at different times and try them out for themselves, experimenting with what works for each of their minds.
  • After participants have had some experience trying out a concentration practice and (inevitably) getting acquainted with their common distractions, it can make for an interesting discussion to compare the kinds of distractions that were most effective during the staring contest with the kinds of distractions that are most powerful during meditation.
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In my last post I described a game that can illuminate the power that perspective has in shaping our experience. It seems fitting to share a story on the same theme—in this case an Eastern European Jewish folktale about the legendary “town of fools” called Chelm.

In this version of the story, a simple misunderstanding causes the protagonist to completely shift his perspective on his hometown, leading to surprise and confusion. The version I usually tell (as related by Rabbi Ed Feinstein) takes a slightly different approach, and it’s easy to adapt the story linked here accordingly. Here’s the version I like, in brief:

The main character is sick and tired of his life in his hometown, so he sets off to find paradise. Knowing he is bad with directions, when he takes a nap under a tree he removes his shoes and points them in the direction he was headed. While he sleeps someone (or something) turns his shoes around to point back towards his home, which is the direction he starts walking once he awakens. When he sees his hometown, he assumes it must be paradise. He recognizes the similarities between paradise and his home, though he figures that of course paradise would be tailor made for each person to be like her/his home so he/she can be as comfortable as possible. He finds his same old town, same old house, same old wife and kids, same old job and routine—but since he’s now convinced he’s in paradise, it’s all become wonderful to him!

Application Notes:

  • Given that the theme of this story parallels the theme of the last game I described, much of the application to mindfulness education is similar: recognizing that how we relate to our experience has tremendous power, and seeing how gratitude and appreciation are greatly available if we can just shift our perspective.

This game is a real favorite of mine. Not only does it get participants up, moving, and having fun, but it also gives them a direct experience of how our relationship with the world has so much to do with our perspective on it. The boring and mundane suddenly get transformed into the exciting and interesting, with a bit of trust (interdependence anyone?) thrown in!

Instructions:

  • Participants get into pairs.
  • In each pair, the partners decide who will be Person A and who will be Person B, noting that it doesn’t matter much since both partners will be in both of the game’s roles.
  • In round one, Person B closes her/his eyes and Person A holds him/her by the wrist and leads Person B (carefully!) around to take some “snapshots” of the surroundings. In other words:
    • Person A leads Person B to a place.
    • By moving her/his hand up or down the arm of Person B, Person A has Person B “zoom” in or out by leaning forward or leaning back (hand moves up the arm=zoom out, and vice versa).
    • When Person B is in the right position, Person A does a quick squeeze of Person B’s wrist and person B opens her/his eyes for a split second and then closes them again.
  • This repeats for a number of “snapshots,” where Person A can show Person B all sorts of images, both up close and from a distance.
  • After several minutes, round two begins and the partners trade roles.
  • After several minutes of round two, come back together for a discussion about what participants noticed in their experience. Did they see new details that they’d never noticed, even if they’d been in that setting dozens of times before? Did they have a new experience of old details? How did that feel? Etc.

Application Notes:

  • One major piece of wisdom that mindfulness reveals is that we have limited control over what happens to us, but we can have a big influence over how we relate to what happens to us—and that can make all the difference in our experience of our lives, moment by moment. This game offers a way for participants to understand, first hand, how a shift in their relationship with a piece of sensory information (the “snapshots”) can change the feelings they have about that sensory information and, in the process, their whole mood.
  • This game also can bring to light how rich the world around us is—and how many lovely details we typically don’t notice, even when they’re right in front of our face. This can lead to a discussion of why we don’t notice such details in general (e.g. not being in the present moment; the tendency of our minds to categorize objects/people/settings and then mostly only see the categories, and not the things themselves; etc.) How much more full and vivid would our experience of the world be if we truly were able to greet each moment and all the details therein with a clear, curious, and powerful awareness? How does mindfulness training move us in that direction?
  • Another relevant topic to this game is appreciation and gratitude. When our minds put something into the category of “been there, done that,” we tend to take it for granted. Unfortunately, it’s often the people/activities/places/objects that are most important to us that are the most overlooked. The “snapshots” in the game likely helped participants see mundane details anew, with “beginner’s mind.” What would it be like if we could similarly look anew at the major features of our lives?
  • One layer of this activity is the trust that participants have to put into their partners when they close their eyes and are led around. You could cue participants to be mindful of their thoughts and feelings around these vulnerable moments, and then follow up with a discussion on trust, fear, interdependence, and even vulnerability.

Since I just posted a game about gratitude, I thought I’d also share an elegant little story that I like to use to convey that theme. This tale really hits the nail on the head when it comes to mental states and the impact they have on our moment-to-moment well-being.

Note:  The story is on the bottom half of this page.

This starts off with the improv warm-up game, the Random Word Generator. As a warm-up it can be used to “break the ice” in a group and open participants’ minds to greater possibility and spontaneity. The game then shifts to a gratitude centered activity, though given its flexible nature it can likely be used to open up a number of mindfulness-related topics.

Instructions:

  • Let everyone know that they’ll be saying a spontaneous word based on a different word that they’ll hear. It’s only natural to be tempted to think up some word possibilities before the game starts—just notice the mind doing that and put all of those premeditated words off to the side, as the point of this game is to be spontaneous.
  • Split the group into two lines that face each other, several feet apart.
  • Choose a person on the end of a line to go first by saying a random word (word 1). Let’s say that this participant is person 1 in line A.
  • The person across from them (person 1 in line B) hears the starting word (word 1) and, as quickly as possible, says a different word (word 2) that word 1 called to mind.
  • Then person 2 in line A takes in word 2 and, as quickly as possible, responds with a different word that word 2 brought to mind.
  • This process continues zigzagging between line A and B until the last person speaks their spontaneous word.
  • After a few rounds, let everyone know that they’ll be shifting from spontaneity to gratitude. Now they can think of some words to use in advance, by taking several silent seconds to come up with various things they are grateful for.
  • Replay the game for a few rounds where the zigzagging words that emerge are all things the participants are grateful for.
  • If the group seems up for a challenge, you can combine the spontaneity and gratitude into one. After the first word of gratitude spoken, every following word will be both a spontaneous response to the word right before it while at the same time being something the speaker is grateful for.

Instruction Notes:

  • It can be helpful (especially for younger participants) to start off with a practice round where you go down the aisle between the lines, pointing to each person when it’s their turn.
  • After a round or two, you can time how long it takes to go from the first person to the last person, encouraging the group to keep breaking their record. This adds a fun element of pressure to the game that pushes participants to think even faster, pushing the edge of their spontaneity.
  • To change things up, you can shift the starting person from round to round simply by beginning with a different “end of line”.

Application Notes:

  • As mentioned before, this game works well as a warm-up for a whole class, or even as a fun segue that gets people up and active and having fun.
  • One result of the game is that it quickly brings to the surface a wide range of things for which people are grateful. These various ideas can be drawn on for a number of different gratitude activities that can follow this one.
  • As with any gratitude exercise, you can have participants mindfully keep track of their emotional and mental states from the beginning to the end of the game. One effective way for doing this is to have occasional check-ins (at the start, perhaps two times (or more if the group seems amenable) during the game, and at the end). The group can then have a follow-up discussion about what people noticed, giving special attention to any mental/emotional shifts, why those happened, and what life lessons can be drawn from that.
  • For an older (as in teen and up) group, the spontaneity-focused part of the game provides an opportunity to watch the instructions about responding “in the moment” come up against the mind’s tendency to plan and form expectations. It’s worth giving this process some extra mindfulness cues and discussion time, since it raises a range of juicy topics (expectations, being in the moment, conscious (premeditated) responses vs. unconscious (‘spontaneous’) responses, etc.).

This tale is one I often tell to children in kindergarten through fourth grade, though I would tell it to adults as well if the setting were right.  The story has some great fairy tale elements– journeying into a forest for the sake of healing, magical encounters that can be on the spooky (yet not scary) side, and powerful dreams.  At the same time, its combination of the “We are all one” refrain with the acts of compassion by the protagonist are a great way of giving listeners an experience of how a sense of interconnectedness can lead to compassion.

Note:  When following the link, feel free to skip over the top half of the page and go straight to the story below.

 

So you’ve probably played this one before—something of a hybrid between the Telephone Game and Pictionary.  It’s not exactly a drama game, but it’s a fun and creative way to open up a topic, which in this case is relaxation. As with any of these games, I’m presenting it the way I’ve used it. You may think of a different (or better) way to apply it to mindfulness education (in which case we’d love to hear about it in the comments section).

Instructions:

  • Everyone starts with a piece of paper and a pen or pencil, sitting in a circle.
  • Have each participant fold the piece of paper such that there are 6 horizontal sections.
  • In the top section, each participant writes down a way that they like to relax.
  • Everyone then passes their paper to the person on their left.
  • Having received a new piece of paper, the participants read about the relaxation technique of their neighbor. Then, in the second horizontal section on the paper, they draw a quick (30 seconds) sketch that portrays their neighbor’s written technique. Finally, they fold the top section backwards so that it is no longer visible when looking at the front of the page. With their drawings now at the top of the page, they pass the paper to the people on their left.
  • In the horizontal section under the drawing they just received, participants write a sentence that attempts to portray what the drawing shows. Having done so, they fold the drawing back so that their sentence is at the top of the page and the previous sentence and drawing are no longer visible. They then pass the sheet to the person on their left.
  • This continues, with sentences and pictures alternating, until the last horizontal section has been drawn in and the sheet has been passed one more time to the left.
  • Participants can each take turns describing to the group what they think the drawing portrays on the sheet they’re currently holding. Having done so, they then unfold the sheet and read out loud the first sentence that was written on it.
  • The result is usually that there’s been a significant (and often humorous) drift from the original sentence to the final spoken one. After participants have shared, it’s fun to pass the sheets around in an informal way for people to take a look at how the drift happened.

Application Notes:

  • Whereas some games are good for digging into the content at hand, this one is more about simply introducing a topic (relaxation) in a fun way so as to create a positive association with the material, change up the modalities of instruction, and break the ice between participants.
  • That said, one outcome of the game is that participants have shared relaxation techniques that they use, empowering them to realize that they already have experience and expertise when it comes to working with their own minds and feelings.
  • Another outcome is that the group now has a bank of relaxation techniques that, if fitting for the class, can be explored together.