“This meditation stuff is so great. You’ve got to do it. What a pain in the ass.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the individuals most responsible for bringing for bringing mindfulness and meditation to western popular culture, said those words at a conference I attended last week.
I couldn’t agree more.
Let me explain.
As much as I believe in mindfulness, as much as it has helped me become a calmer, happier mother, it’s hard for me to write about it. I feel like an over-eager evangelist, peddling the latest snake oil that will help you be a better mother. “Hey, just breathe and it will all be fine!”
Yeah. Please. Whatever. I get it when my friends roll their eyes at me. Sometimes I roll my eyes at me. It all just sounds so damn corny and contrived, which I have no patience for.
Some of my favorite writers are the ones who have found ways to write so beautifully about mindfulness, about paying attention in a thoughtful, kind, engaged way, without ever using the word “mindfulness.” Anne Lamott is by far my favorite:
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it, and find out the truth about who you are.” – Anne Lamott
So, why am I still writing about all of this?
Because I believe in it. I believe that the simple act of paying attention with kindness, of learning to be aware of what I am seeing or hearing or doing while I am doing it (and without judging it!) helps me be the best version of myself. When I can calm the irritated, judgmental, worried voices in my head, I realize that reality isn’t nearly as bad as I make it out to be. In fact, it’s pretty good.
But it’s not just that.
Mindfulness is the first approach to parenting—and life—that I have found that isn’t asking me to be anyone other than who I am. Unlike other parenting “theories,” mindfulness has no opinions about how I should put my children to sleep or feed them or educate them or treat their illnesses. Practicing mindfulness doesn’t depend on the structure of our family, how much money we make, what culture or religion we come from, or whether or not I am a stay-at-home Mom. It’s the first approach to parenting that I have found that is backed up by solid research, as well as centuries of ancient wisdom.
Mindful parenting recognizes that there are many, many different ways to raise a child well, and the core of all of them is paying attention to our children, the core of all of them is kindness.
As the Dalai Lama puts it: “This is my simple religion. No need for temples. No need for complicated philosophy. Your own mind, your own heart is the temple. Your philosophy is simple kindness.”
The day after Jon Kabat-Zinn spoke at the conference, the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastics took the stage. He is, perhaps, the most well known Buddhist in the world after the Dalai Lama. He talked about mindful breathing, mindful eating, and mindful walking, and how these activities can help us become aware of the many, many conditions for joy that already exist in our bodies, such as our “non-toothache.”
Fortunately for me, he didn’t stop there. The reality is that while counting my blessings can help me feel a little better about the day, it’s just not enough. I still get confused and angry and frustrated, and I needed to hear Thich Nhat Hanh acknowledge this too. I don’t think I could subscribe to a life philosophy that didn’t acknowledge how incredibly hard and painful life can be.
Here is what he said: “My understanding of the Kingdom of God is not that it is a place with no suffering. The kingdom of God is a place where people know how to make good use of their suffering in order to cultivate understanding and compassion. Without understanding and compassion, we cannot generate happiness.”
Whether or not you believe in the idea of a Kingdom of God, the question of how to make good use of our suffering is a good one. What does it mean, and how will it help us? It means to take the time to be with our pain and confusion, to listen to it, to experience and explore it, and to understand it. Some people think best while they’re running; I prefer to journal or talk with others. When I think about making good use of my suffering, I like to think of how I might help a friend or be helped by one: I would sit down with her, listen to her story until she was done sharing it, and offer my kindness, either in my words or actions or just my presence. It’s not hard to think about offering such support to a friend; offering it to myself is a completely different story.
I want to run away from it. Whenever I start paying attention to my suffering, to my anxiety or pain or frustration, my first impulse is to check my phone or pick up a book or grab a snack. But the truth is that whatever is bothering me is still there, waiting for a chance to make itself known, in the form of a headache or snapping at my girls or late-night insomnia. When that happens, we all suffer more, and I am definitely not making good use of my suffering.
In addition, when I run from what’s hard, I lose the opportunity to find the good in it. When I get mad at the girls for having a tantrum, when I react angrily and yell, I miss out on the chance to understand the cause of their frustration (and thereby understand them a little bit better). I miss out on an opportunity to snuggle and soothe them, to teach them that are ways to help yourself and others feel better when things aren’t going so well. This doesn’t mean that I have to tolerate bad behavior, but it does mean learning to sit with hard, uncomfortable feelings.
When I can stay with those feelings, either in myself or others, when I can acknowledge how boring parenting can be at times, or how annoyed I get, or how much I beat myself up for my mistakes, then I start to find a little compassion for everyone involved. The reality that I am becoming more and more aware of with each passing day is that we’re all in this mess called life together, and when we can actually be in it with each other instead of constantly running away from it and from each other, well, we might all just suffer a little less. Or maybe just a little better.
And that’s why I practice mindfulness, and that’s why I keep writing about it, even when I feel like a pain in the ass.