When I first learned about mindfulness, I imagined myself with a shaved head, handing out flowers in an airport. Seeing as how I have a serious aversion to drum circles and incense, I immediately wrote the whole thing off.
Boy, was I wrong.
So, before I jump into the details of mindful parenting, it seems important to clarify just precisely what mindfulness is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m still learning about all of this myself, so please feel free to share your thoughts or questions.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in the contemporary mindfulness movement, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” There are a number of different aspects to this definition worth exploring briefly. (I highly recommend Kabat-Zinn’s book, Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life for those interested in additional reading.) Rather than just acknowledging what you are doing (whether that’s eating dinner, playing with the kids, or folding the laundry) and then letting your mind wander, mindfulness is about consciously choosing to focus your attention to whatever you are doing, while you are doing it. Your thoughts will drift, you will inevitably find yourself ruminating about something that happened earlier in the day or worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. The point of mindfulness practice is to notice when your thoughts wander, be ok with that, and then come back to the children or the dishes or whatever you happen to be doing.
Mindfulness practice is not about emptying your mind of thoughts (I’ve never really figured out what that means, anyway) or focusing on a particular mantra. It’s just about staying present and aware of whatever you may be doing. It sounds easy, but let me tell you, it’s not. Just this morning I tried to shower mindfully, and rather than appreciating the warmth of the water or the smell of my shampoo, I found myself rehashing a conversation I had with my husband yesterday and reviewing my to-do list for the day. You may wonder what the problem is with all of that; isn’t it useful to spend time considering the important relationships in our life, or making sure we take care of our daily tasks?
The answer to both of those questions is, yes, of course. But my shower obsessions weren’t useful at all, and in fact, they may be detrimental to my ability to get things done. I wasn’t actually improving my relationship with my husband by thinking to myself, and all of my careful planning for the day turned out to be totally irrelevant once my daughter woke up with a ruptured eardrum and I had to take her to the doctor. In addition, I missed out on an opportunity to appreciate a moment of peace and quiet—something all too precious to parents of young children.
A shower might not seem that important, and for many of us, it’s a time to do some serious thinking. But it is an opportunity to train our brains to stay focused in the moment, a skill that can be truly useful and meaningful when we are spending time with our children or partners, those moments that really count, that we want to appreciate and remember. By taking a few breaths and grounding ourselves in the present, we can get out of our own heads and remain open to the possibilities of the present, to the possibility of connecting and re-connecting with others and with ourselves.
In addition to practicing mindfulness at various moments throughout the day, it’s important to take time for formal practice. Yes, I am talking about meditation (as well as yoga, tai chi, or other mindful movement practices). No, you don’t have to be Buddhist (or any religion for that matter), and you don’t need an altar or a Tibetan singing bowl. You just need to find a little time and space (no easy task for parents!) where you can sit or lay down for about 20 minutes, and focus on your breathing or your body. There are a number of free guided meditations and other resources online, and remember, the point is not to keep your mind focused perfectly the whole time (I don’t think that’s possible for anyone!), but to keep coming back to your breath or your body, over and over again.
The good news about mindfulness is that anyone can do it, at any time. It doesn’t cost any money or require any specializing knowledge. Among its many benefits, I believe mindfulness can make us calmer, happier, more effective, more connected parents.