by Mary Ann Christie Burnside, EdD
Despite the depth of love or breadth of good intentions we, as parents, have for our children, we will face moments when we simply do not know what to do. For whatever reason, we are out of ideas about how to relate to our sons and daughters. In moments like these, we can feel lost, exhausted or overwhelmed. We may doubt our abilities, judge ourselves harshly, wonder how other mothers and fathers navigate parenthood, or even secretly wish that someone would knock on our door and take over, if only for the next five minutes.
The good news is that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
We each have deep capacities for awareness and compassion, which we can bring to bear especially in difficult moments. We can learn to relate to all experiences in mindful ways: ways that are kind, thoughtful and responsive rather than hurtful, forgetful and reactive. Despite our histories, we get to choose how we want to be in the world. And yes, even in the toughest moments, we have this choice. Our capacity to be mindful – to remember that we can bring awareness and compassion to ourselves and to our children – is always there, just under the surface. A mindfulness practice is like a priceless map to our inner strength, beauty, wisdom and kindness when we need it most – and even when we don’t.
Mindfulness is both a quality of attention and the cultivation of a practice that develops this attention. Perhaps the most commonly cited definition is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, which I’ll paraphrase: “Mindfulness means paying attention, on purpose, to present moment experience without judgment.” When I first heard this, I wondered why judgment was in there and you might too. It’s because the very nature of the mind is to judge our experiences, sometimes all day long and often without our permission. The mind has a mind of it’s own. It’s constantly producing thoughts including evaluations or judgments such as “I like this, don’t like that,” “I want more of this, less of that,” “I can’t believe it!,” or “Why is this happening?” Although thoughts are not a problem per se, they can be if we start seeing them as indistinguishable from the truth. When we’re caught in thoughts or related feelings, we can live our lives indirectly through our mind’s labeling of the experience rather than through the experience itself. Our minds can also get stuck in rumination, which can be regret about yesterday or worry about tomorrow – two more ways to miss out on the here and now.
When we practice paying attention to our present moment experience with compassion or kindness instead of judgment, we can relate to whatever’s happening in an open and spacious way. In fact, mindfulness is all about relationships: how we relate to our lives, ourselves, our children and everything else. Although we may really notice benefits in our toughest moments, mindfulness is an inclusive practice that influences all experience: reducing pain and suffering of negative experiences, enhancing happiness and joy of things positive and affecting even our neutral moments, which we probably didn’t notice much before.
Magic? No. Miraculous? I think so. Although formal meditation practice can be very helpful in cultivating awareness and compassion, mindfulness is really about how you live your life. Instead of taking my word for it, trust your own experience. Try these ten informal mindfulness practices and notice what happens. You just might find that you’re changing your relationship to everything, one moment at a time.
1 Self-awareness. Check in with yourself throughout the day. Take a moment to notice what is going on with you. What thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations can you notice?
2 Pause. Sometimes a brief moment of awareness is all it takes to change the next one. Once you have some awareness of your inner experience, figure out how you want to relate to what’s going on around you, your outer experience. If you are unable to speak with love or at least respect, take a break until you can find your balance (kindness helps; see below).
3 Observe thought. Practice observing your thoughts from time to time. Notice how many of them there are and how quickly they change. Pay attention to content and emotional quality. And remember: Don’t believe everything you think.
4 Acceptance. Acceptance is not about agreement but acknowledgment. It’s about saying yes to what’s happening, which is a good idea because, well, it’s happening.
5 Offer kindness. When you are feeling angry, sad, lost or overwhelmed do one kind thing for yourself or for someone else. Then notice how you feel.
6 Gratitude. Develop an “attitude of gratitude.” Each evening, write about or reflect on three things that you are thankful for that day.
7 Compassion. Sometimes we are in such a hurry to fix or change things when we’re suffering that we never learn to deal with our hurt in a healthy way. Next time you’re upset, see if you can soften into your disappointment, fear or anger rather than resist it. You can practice softening into others’ suffering too.
8 Self-talk. Notice how you talk to yourself. You can work with negative self-talk to make it more neutral or positive. For example, if you hear yourself saying “I’m never going to make this work,” try something like: “I’m frustrated right now about _______, so I am going to be kind myself.”
9 Mindful speaking and listening. When you speak, use “I” language to ground yourself in your experience (e.g., this is what I am thinking, feeling, noticing). Use as few words as possible for sake of clarity. For mindful listening, just listen. Practice being present to your children as they speak to you. Sometimes the most important thing is for someone to know that he or she is really being heard.
10 Let go of perfection. When it comes to parenting, life, or anything else, forget about perfection. Perfection is an idea. The truth is that no one and nothing is perfect. Instead of chasing perfection, just do your best, whatever that is. Know that your best will change day-to-day, even moment-to-moment, just like everyone else’s. And remember that when you learn to let go of perfection, you can start letting go of other things that get in your way.