“Mindfulness is a verb, not a noun.”
Mindful parenting is not an ideal state to achieve; it is an on-going practice of getting in touch with ourselves and our children, and connecting with intuitive common sense. These remarks by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn set the tone for their daylong workshop in Seattle, exploring:
- Dropping in on the Present Moment;
- Awareness and Presence with Children;
- Practicing Acceptance;
- Reacting vs. Responding to Children.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is the world-leading scientist, researcher, and meditation teacher who brought mindfulness into the mainstream. He is the author of several best-selling books on mindfulness, including Everyday Blessings, The Inner World of Mindful Parenting, co-authored by his wife, Myla, a meditation teacher. Their workshop on Mindful Parenting, January 25, was sponsored by the University of Washington’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being. It was an honor to spend the day with Jon and Myla; they were authentic, warm, and practical in their approach.
The Kabat-Zinns emphasize that mindfulness is about being – it is not another thing to add to an already long to-do list. It was reassuring to hear them affirm that, although it is highly beneficial, a formal meditation practice is not required to parent mindfully. We just need to be as present, openhearted, and accepting as often as we can. The concept may be simple, but it is one of the hardest things in the world to do. This way of being is much more likely to happen if we continue to exercise the “muscle of mindfulness” in everyday life. Mindful parenting is not a curriculum to follow or a prescription for the RIGHT way to parent. Mindfulness helps us connect with our inner wisdom and trust our common sense about what is right for the child.
It was interesting to hear Jon and Myla share what they have learned about mindful parenting since their children were young and Everyday Blessings was first published in 1997. The book is now being revised. One change, set forth in the new edition, clears up the misunderstanding that mindful parenting is a passive, do-your-own-thing philosophy. On the contrary, mindfulness provides solid ground for the establishment of family structures that include age-appropriate expectations, boundaries, and responsibilities.
In the workshop, we experienced Four Mindfulness Practices for Everyday Life.
Although the room was packed with a sold-out crowd, a feeling of spaciousness permeated the day, with ample time to experience, share, and learn from each other.
Four Mindfulness Practices for Everyday Life
The following summary of practices includes excerpts (in quotes) from the workshop handout by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn, 1.25.14.
The full practices can be found in their book, Everyday Blessings, The Inner World of Mindful Parenting.
1. Dropping in on the Present Moment
Practice: “This is the core practice to cultivate mindfulness in daily life. Whenever you care to, no matter what is happening, you can always experiment with dropping in on yourself in the present moment. Can you be still, even for a moment, and simply take in what is unfolding inwardly and outwardly?”
- Start out by becoming aware of the feeling of the breath moving in and out. Even staying with one in-breath and one out-breath can help you be more present.
- Notice any sensations in your body. The body is our indicator; stay tuned-in to your body as much as you can.
- You can then expand your awareness to your thoughts and feelings, being as non-judgmental as you can. Notice that your thoughts come and go, like clouds in the sky. Where, if at all, do you feel your emotions in your body?
- It is the nature of the mind to resist being present. When you notice your mind is carried away, which will happen frequently, gently redirect your attention back to your breath and body, resting in this moment…
When we are disconnected, children can’t feel us.
During the day, we will be out of touch and disconnected much of the time — caught up in tasks; lost in the past or future; shut down by feelings of fear, irritation, anger. It’s less natural for adults to be in the moment because we have so much on our minds, whereas children tend to be naturally in the moment and want to feel we are there with them. Children are great role models in mindfulness!
When we are in touch with ourselves, children FEEL we are there.
When children feel and sense you, it’s different than seeing and hearing you — it is profound. Dropping in is a radical act of caring for yourself and others. When you notice you are not present, which will be often, drop in for brief moments. Our mindfulness muscle is exercised as we continue to do this, again and again.
2. Awareness and Presence with Children
Practice: “Choose a time in the day to experiment with bringing your full presence and attention to whatever is unfolding with your children. It could be…the transition when your children first come home from school, or bedtime, or diapering…The most important thing is to simply experience what is happening in this moment and to be fully present for it without having to have anything happen next…just this timeless moment as it is…”
Being present allows you to see your child’s TRUE NATURE.
This gives your child the room to be who he or she is. Try to let go of any labels (this is my easy child; this is my challenging child). Continue to look and listen deeply — children are always changing.
We are not talking about constant presence when you are with your child.
It doesn’t need to be all the time, that would be impossible and even unhealthy, just moments in the day. Part of being present to your child is being present with yourself; you have your own needs.
3. Practicing Acceptance
Practice: “You can choose a time in each day when you intentionally work with accepting things just as they are (children, yourself, what is happening in the moment) — and practice letting go of having to have things be different or change in any way. Experiment with bringing an openhearted presence to this ‘accepting’ time.”
You might choose a mildly challenging situation to focus on. For example, the rush of getting your child ready for school.
- What’s going on in my body? If I am jumping around inside — what does my child feel? The jumping around.
- What is the VOICE I am waking up my child with?
- What might it be like for this child in the a.m.?
- What might his or her feelings be?
- Try to accept what IS, even when you don’t like it.
- Accept the child, in this moment, even when the behavior is unacceptable.
- Reflect on what it feels like when you are at your worst and in the presence of someone who is holding who you truly are versus being with someone who judges and criticizes you.
- Pay attention to your fears about this situation. Discriminate between what is exaggerated and what is helpful.
Allow for natural consequences, when appropriate
- If you are upset because your child is not cooperating and is going to be late for school, ask yourself “What is the worst that can happen?” Sometimes it is helpful to allow your child to experience and learn from the consequences.
- Possibly later in the day, reflect on “What could I do differently?”
Acceptance is NOT about being a passive or overly permissive parent.
- Some expectations are essential for the safety, well-being, and healthy development of the child and your family. Children need structure to feel secure. Examine your expectations and decide what structures are helpful.
- What is it that your child/teen/family needs? These needs will change with different ages and stages.
- Set clear, healthy, age-appropriate expectations, boundaries, and responsibilities.
- Be consistent.
- No wiggle room. This gives children a sense of safety — like the law of gravity, this is a structure they can depend on.
- Children will naturally push against boundaries. Sometimes a child needs to hit a wall of futility: “I’m not going to get what I want.”
- If the child senses your comfort in holding firm, they will usually work through it. Mindfulness helps you stay grounded; it gives you an anchor in the storm.
4. Reacting vs. Responding to our Children
Practice 4 will be presented in an upcoming blog.