My five-year-old daughter flipped out this morning when she learned that she needed to get a blood test. While I’m not a big fan of tearful wailing at 8:00 AM, I have to admit that flipping out is a perfectly reasonable response to the thought of having a complete stranger stick a needle in your arm. Especially when you’re just five years old.
We’ve been through our fair share of flip-outs, and they usually end with some variation of either snuggles or shouts (from both of us), but this time I tried something new. Perhaps it’s because I actually got eight hours of sleep last night, or perhaps it’s because I’m working on a new book about teaching mindfulness to children, but I actually had an idea.
Earlier this morning, my daughter has asked me if I had meditated after I woke up, and it just so happens that I had, so I knew meditation was on her mind. As she sat at the dining room table, sobbing into her cereal, I told her that one reason I meditate is so I can practice choosing my thoughts, so I can get better at keeping the ones I want and getting ride of the ones I don’t.
A few weeks ago, I was on a retreat as part of a year-long course I recently took on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. (For the record, the course meets in person in the Boston area and online for those of you around the world, and it’s fantastic. If you’re a mental health professional interested in integrating mindfulness into your practice, I highly recommend you check it out.) Anyway, we spent about 36 hours of the retreat in silence, during which time our goal was to meditate on whatever we were doing: sitting, walking, washing dishes, and eating.
At each meal, I tried to focus on eating slowly by chewing carefully and paying attention to the flavor, smell, and texture of each bite. This doesn’t come naturally to me; even before I had kids, I tended to shovel my food in as though a baby was crying or a toddler was nagging me to wipe her tushy, and once I became a mother, well, things just went downhill. If I wasn’t careful on the retreat, I quickly reverted back to my habit of speed eating, even though there wasn’t a kid in sight.
And then I remembered a tip I had read somewhere about how to eat more slowly: put down your fork between bites. As I thought about it, I realized that I can’t be fully present for any one bite if I’ve got one hand wrapped around a fork, poised to take the next one. It’s taken me a long time to fully understand this, and I’m still fully figuring it out, but what we’re doing with our bodies at any given moment really does influence how our brains are working (or not). Merely holding a utensil in my hand triggered my mind to think about what was coming next, which meant I wasn’t thinking about the bite I was working on.
If I had to pick just one rule of parenting, it wouldn’t be “never wake a sleeping baby” or “just love your children enough and it will all work out.” It wouldn’t even be “there are no rules.” Rather, it would be this:
Learn how to pay attention, and what to pay attention to.
Many of us move through life assuming that we either have the ability to pay attention or we don’t, and if we don’t (or, more likely, if our energetic six year old child doesn’t) then we need to medicate ourselves (or our little one) back into paying attention.
Actually, most of us move through life without ever paying attention to whether or not we pay attention.
The reality is that paying attention is a skill we can cultivate. In fact, it is a skill we need to cultivate, especially once we become parents. Our brains just aren’t designed to pay attention to any one thing—they’re composed of about a billion little neurons, happily firing away, willy-nilly (yes, that’s a scientific term), with blatant disregard to whether or not we actually need to focus on something.
In addition, our minds are constantly scanning the environment for modern-day versions of saber-toothed tigers that might eat our babies, even in relatively safe environments. (Since I became a mother, I can spot a butter knife too close to the edge of a counter from a mile away.) To top it all off, almost everything in our lives, from smartphones that won’t stop beeping and flashing to curious kiddos who insist on peppering us with questions from the other side of the shower curtain, conspires against our ability to keep our attention on just one thing.
In my last post, I wrote about why parenting when you were under-parented can be so hard. It’s harder because those of us who grew up in chaotic homes may want to raise our children in drastically different ways, which means we’re basically reinventing parenthood as we go along. In addition, we may be more likely to be triggered by our children’s challenging behavior, sending us down an emotional “low road,” which can lead to angry outbursts and out-of-control behavior—precisely what we were trying to avoid in the first place.
In this post, I’m going to offer some suggestions for how to move beyond our own difficult childhoods so we can become the parents we want to be. As you read this post, keep in mind that these are not easy tasks I am suggesting. They require time, hard work, and a lot of self-compassion for ourselves when we miss the mark (which we will do, just as every other parent does). I am still doing this work—with the help of a therapist, supportive friends and family, my meditation practice, and most importantly, ongoing reminders from my own children about why I am doing all of this.
Lately I’ve started doing a different kind of meditation. Rather than focusing on my breathing, I repeat the following phrases in my mind:
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I feel loved.
And then I repeat those same words, but for different people. Lately, I’ve been mostly focusing on my daughters.
Now, if this sounds a little bit too Stuart Smalley (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!”) for your taste, well, I hear you. The first time I heard about this lovingkindness meditation (complete with instructions to place my hand over my heart), I almost laughed out loud. It sounded so preposterous and contrived and just plain silly that there was no way I could possibly imagine doing it. Sometimes it still feels that way, even when I am doing it.
Yet I keep doing it, because I have come to understand that kindness is my greatest challenge, and my greatest opportunity, in parenting (and in life).
I recently got the following question on my Twitter feed: Do you feel meditation has really changed you? More relaxing, less stress? So on?
The short answer to these questions is YES! All of the above! But that answer isn’t terribly helpful, so I thought it would be useful to share just how my meditation and mindfulness practice helps me to be a better parent.
Before we get into the details, I feel compelled to clarify something. As I have said many times, I am not the Dalai Mama. If any of you were to follow me around for a few days, or spy on me (in a totally non-creep way, of course), you would probably see me snap at my kids or sneak a peek at my smartphone or hide in the kitchen for a break.
You would see me being anything but mindful.
The reality is that I’m doing all of these things less often than I was before I started meditating, and when I do find myself doing them, I am able to calm down, center myself, and make better choices more quickly than before. That’s just what happens when you learn to pay attention to the present moment without judging it or fighting with it. (I actually have a huge amount of experience fighting with reality. I never win.)
Here are the ways in which my meditation and mindfulness practice make me a better mother (in no particular order):
I will never forget the first time I tried to meditate. I was sitting on a hard floor in a stinky gymnasium, hoping to score an easy PE credit so I could graduate from college. A tall, thin man dressed all in white with a long, wispy beard instructed us to cross our legs, close our eyes, breathe deeply and clear our minds.
I was able to cross my legs, but it all went downhill from there.
Clear my mind? What the hell did that mean? Every time I tried to clear my mind, I realized I was just thinking about clearing my mind, which clearly isn’t the same thing. I tried thinking about black. I visualized black. But then I thought about how black isn’t my favorite color; I prefer blue but I can’t decide between sapphire or turquoise… and the next thing I knew, my mind was anything but clear. Also, my butt hurt from sitting on a hard floor, my nose itched, and I wasn’t sure if I should scratch it.
I didn’t try meditation again for almost 20 years…
You can read the rest of this post about mindful parenting and meditation over at the Huffington Post Stress-Less Page. Check it out, and let me know what you think by joining the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
Woman meditating on a beach image available from Shutterstock.
A little while ago I asked my friends on Facebook the following question:
“What’s the best, most real and resonant, piece of parenting advice you have ever received? The kind that really sticks with you?”
I got some great responses, mostly having to do with making choices that work for you and your family and filtering out the advice of well-meaning family, friends, and “experts” who might not have a clear understanding (or any understanding at all) of your situation. There is no question that it is excellent advice, but I’ve often had a hard time implementing it. I’m an anxious person by nature, and I feel plagued by self-doubt and worry as I try to navigate the choppy waters of parenting. I have a hard time trusting myself.
That may be precisely why a different piece of advice really caught my attention. I’ve been ruminating on it for weeks now.
I often think of mindfulness as a way to stay present in the moment and be less reactive in difficult situations. But the reality is that mindfulness can also help with big decisions as well. I recently wrote about how my journey into mindful parenting and meditation helped my husband and me make a pretty big decision for our family.
The whole article is over on Kveller.com, and here’s how it starts:
Just over a year ago, I wrote about my ambivalence about having a third child. In that post, I said that we had always wanted a big family, but after having two kids in less than two years, we were exhausted and not so sure. I also said that I hoped we would make a decision by the time our younger daughter turned 2.
We celebrated her 3rd birthday almost two weeks ago.
I think we may have come to a decision last week. Maybe. Probably. I’m pretty sure…
Has mindfulness ever helped you make a big decision, or understand a big situation more clearly?
I am so pleased to share an interview with Sarah Rudell Beach, the author of Left Brain Buddha, which is one of my favorite mindful parenting blogs.
Your blog is called Left Brain Buddha. How did you come to that name?
I have always been intrigued by Buddhism, going all the way back to high school. The challenging part was quieting my mind. I love thinking! As a teacher and a reader, quieting my mind felt like a loss. Mindfulness practices, as difficult as they can be, are so helpful. They make me more patient with my children, and I yell less. “Left Brain Buddha” is about mindfulness and quieting the mind, but also loving the life of the thinking, or left-brain, mind.
How would you define mindfulness, and how do you see it interacting with your parenting?
Mindfulness sounds so simple but it can be so hard. I define it as nonjudgmental awareness. Being fully aware of and accepting “what is” in the present moment. If I’m happy, I know I’m happy and feel it fully. If I’m angry, or tired, I notice it, but I don’t berate myself for it.
It’s a wonderful practice for parenting. It’s easy to smile and be joyful with our kids when they are laughing and giving kisses. But mindfulness helps me through the challenging parenting moments. Instead of yelling when I’m frustrated with my children, I pause, breathe, and respond skillfully: “How about we both pick up your toys?” instead of “Pick up your toys now!”
It also helps me be more compassionate with my children. Just as mindful awareness of my thoughts and emotions teaches me that I am not my anger, it teaches me that my children are not their tantrums. They are little kids in little bodies struggling to control powerful emotions. If I can respond with compassion to the little Buddha inside, and not react forcefully to the outward behavior, it helps us all calm down sooner.