Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Minding the Gap

Meditation, Week 4

The previous posts this month have all focused on the benefits of regular meditation and mindfulness practices and how, even when we are aware of the physical and psychological benefits of these practices, it can still be difficult to make time for them.  So if it's difficult to be mindful on a typical day, what about the days and moments when we really need them -- moments of extreme stress or overwhelming emotions?  What then?

This is how a mother of a young son described her situation after reading my last post, Mindfulness Blooming. She wrote that she would like her son to:

"...think it through before he says things that he knows is wrong or mean. 
I like the whole approach about 'choice' - make a good choice or that 
was a good choice. But his bad behavior is getting very, very repetitive 
and frustrating because he's so impulsive."

Anyone who has been a parent of young children can certainly relate to this and, if we're being honest, we must admit that even as adults we have impulsive moments when we react unconsciously and say or do something we later regret.  How does mindfulness come into play in these situations?

The short answer is:  by creating space.  Mindfulness is the process of creating a moment of space, a gap, between when we experience an emotion and when we choose a response to it.  The trigger for the emotion can be almost anything:  something we see, something someone says or does to us, or even a thought we have.  No matter how hard we might try (and believe me, I have tried!), we cannot control what other people do, nor can we control our emotional response to it, but what we can control is how we respond. 

  • First, we need to name the emotion, and often there are more than one. This may sound simple, but when emotions are strong and mixed together, it often takes some time to untangle them.  And there is science that supports how important the naming process is -- just saying to ourselves "I'm angry" helps our prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of our brain, begin to "unflood" so we can think more clearly.
  • Next, we need to focus on our bodies.  Again, this sounds easy, but as we all know, pausing in the heat of the moment long enough to notice what's happening in our body can be tough.  If we pay attention, though, there are often physical cues that go along with an emotion that can eventually be "early warning" indicators as we become more aware.   

For kids the "minding the gap" process is the same, we just need to coach them through it gently and patiently.  I describe one of the first times I did this with my son, Ben, in an earlier post Developing Minds.  Since that event, I've also noticed that sometimes I can tell even before my boys do that something has affected them -- with my older son, Sam, it's often a particular look in his eye that alerts me, and I can then ask him how he's feeling, which helps him in directing his attention.  

Finally, there's another aspect of parenting mindfully that I don't think is addressed as frequently as it should be, and that is "self compassion". I was first introduced to this idea at a meditation retreat, and it deeply resonated with me.  As parents, we work hard to raise our children and provide them with everything they need, and its easy to blame ourselves or feel discouraged when our kids don't behave in the way we would like them to, when they continue to struggle with particular issues.  We need to be patient with them and with ourselves.  For me this can be difficult sometimes, but I find that trying to look at myself from the perspective of someone who loves me helps, as does including myself when I do lovingkindness meditations.  We can all benefit from a little extra compassion from any source. So this week, practice saying to yourself...

May I be happy,
May I be well,
May I be free from pain and suffering.

Activities for Meditation, Week 4

This week's activities have been selected to help you:
  1. Consider ideas for parenting mindfully,
  2. Find emotional and mental space in everyday moments,and
  3. Have some fun with your kids doing random acts of kindness.


When you have five minutes...

Watch this 2-minute video of Dr. Christine Carter talking about mindful parenting:  

What can you do this week to be a more mindful parent, and create space between your emotions and your actions?



When you have 15 minutes... 

Notice the "wallpaper" in your own mind.   This mindfulness practice comes from Rick Hanson, and is something you can do standing in line at the grocery store, or any time you have a few minutes this week.  Here's how:
"Enjoy emptiness in the forms that speak to you: perhaps the quiet at night 
when everyone's asleep but you, a blank page in your journal, a friend's 
receptive listening, an open counter as you begin to cook (love this one myself), 
a hole in your schedule, the space between thoughts 
as your mind calms and becomes still, or a Saturday with no plans at all." 


When you have 30 minutes or more... 

Do random acts of kindness.  Here's a list of ideas to get you started, but it will be especially fun if you and your kids add your own ideas that are especially meaningful or enjoyable to you. 
  1. Take food to the food bank.
  2. Leave flowers on the doorstep of someone you sense might benefit from some extra kindness this week. 
  3. Offer to babysit for someone with young kids.
  4. Pick up trash in a neighborhood park.
  5. Write a thank-you note to someone whose work you appreciate:  the local police/fire department, a teacher, your mailman... 


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mindfulness Blooming

Meditation, Week 3

Spring has felt more like summer in the Pacific Northwest this week, so my family and I have been spending a lot of time out on the back deck soaking in the sunshine.  A couple of days ago I was sitting outside reading and got up to come inside just as my nine-year-old son, Ben, was coming out to tell me something.  We ended up standing a talking for a moment about whatever it was, and as we turned to come back in the house, Ben startled me when he suddenly exclaimed “Mama, look!” 

Turning and expecting to see some problem I would have to deal with (usually the cause of such exclamations), I was surprised to realize he was pointing to the trees.  The leaves are that beautiful bright shade of spring green right now, and the angle of the sun at that moment was catching the leaves in a way that made them particularly brilliant, with a light breeze moving the leaves just enough to enhance the sparkling effect.  He reached out to hold my hand, and we stood silently for a minute, admiring the view.  

This was one of those rare and precious parenting moments when I had the feeling “Hey, I’m really on the right track here.”  You see, I have an addiction that I wasn’t even aware of until fairly recently that would have previously made this moment unlikely, and I’ve been working hard to recover from it. No, not alcohol, not drugs, not gambling – the addiction to hurrying.  For years now, even in situations when I’m not under any time pressure to get someplace or meet some sort of deadline, I still hurry, rushing myself and everyone else along to do whatever we’re doing quickly so we don’t waste any time.  

The irony of the situation, in retrospect, is that even though I’ve had a regular meditation practice for a while now, remaining mindful throughout the day is still a challenge.  Regularly hurrying through my days, I know that I’ve rushed past many potential moments of connection like the one I had looking at the leaves with Ben, which is really the whole point of meditation and mindfulness, right? Being in the present moment.  And what’s more, given that energy and emotions are contagious, I’ve also been infecting my family with my "hurry up" energy.

But lately I’ve been practicing being more mindful throughout the day, and I’ve been trying to help my kids do this, too.  Just role-modeling mindfulness would not be enough, however, because implicit learning, or learning without the awareness that we’re learning something, is fairly weak.  So, I’ve been talking to the boys a lot about mindfulness, and I’ve also made a habit of saying out loud things like, “Wow, I’m feeling a little scattered here. Let me take a breath and try to focus.”  Much better than snapping at everyone to be quiet, or hurry up! In short, I’ve been developing my mindful parenting skills.

Mindful Parenting

So what does it mean to mindfully parent?  Mindfulness, as described by Dr. Dan Siegel, is “paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, without grasping onto judgments.”  Which means that we can think of mindful parenting as the practice of intentionally bringing purposeful awareness to everyday parenting situations in order to cultivate and deepen the parent-child connection.  And there is a clear benefit to mindful parenting, too – a significant and growing body of research showing that kids who are deeply connected to their parents demonstrate higher levels of:
  • Self-esteem
  • Confidence to explore and experiment
  • Communication skills with people of all ages
  • Academic performance
  • Adaptability to change

As Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, so beautifully describes it:

“Making the choice to exercise restraint, empathy, compassion and even-handedness time and time again is how these qualities become habitual in both parent and child. When our kids see us being kind to others, we're both practicing kindness ourselves and modeling it for them; when they watch us exercise patience while waiting our turn in the grocery line or when stuck in traffic, we're both modeling patience to our kids and practicing it ourselves.”

Mindful Children

So in addition to role modeling mindfulness, how can we teach it to our kids?  How can we become mindful families?  Here are a few ideas:
  • If you meditate, practice where your kids can see you.  Never force them to join, and don’t even say anything about it. Just let them be curious and ask on their own.
  • Create mindful moments.  Finding opportunities to be mindful is simple, no matter how busy you are, because mindfulness can be woven into common daily experiences (see some suggestions in "Activities" below). When you’re feeling overwhelmed or distracted by your own emotions, name the feeling you’re having, and say what you’re doing (out loud if your kids are nearby).  For example, “I’m so frustrated – I didn’t expect this traffic and I’m worried we’re going to be late. I need to take a breath and calm down.” 
  • Focus on the small stuff.  It’s the small moments that matter, not the big exciting ones. Pointing out an interesting cloud, or sitting quietly together having a snack – these are the experiences that make your kids feel connected. 
  • Give your undivided attention.  This is what your kids want (even teenagers!) more than anything.  Let them choose the moment, and be ready to seize the opportunity when it arrives.  Make eye contact, listen more than you speak, and stay as open as possible -- no judging! Even if it’s just for a few minutes, it matters.

Activities for Meditation, Week3

This week's activities have been selected to help you:
  1. Practice incorporating mindfulness into your regular daily routine,
  2. Share your meditation and/or mindfulness practice with your kids,
  3. Experience other forms of meditation, including an eating and walking.


When you have five minutes...

1.  On your own:   Sign up for “interrupters” from Mindful.  You can choose to have regular "mindful interruptors" sent to you by Twitter or email that remind you to be aware of your present moment.  An example of one:  “Get out of your chair. Stand up straight. Slowly bend forward from your waist. Let your hands dangle and your head drop. Ah.”

2.  With your child:  Try an eating meditation (a classic!).  Here's the process, as described by Christopher Willard in "A Child's Mind".  All you need are some grapes (or raisins are often used, too):

"...study the grapes for a few minutes, examining them in the light, playing with them in your fingers, bringing them to your lips... notice if you salivate.  Then, gently, without biting into it, place the grape on your tongue, and notice any urges that come up.  Notice what your tongue and mouth do, or want to do, as you taste the grape.  When you are ready, bite into the grape, noticing the flavors and textures. How is your stomach feeling? And the rest of your body? After swallowing, notice any left over flavor remaining in your mouth... and thoughts in your mind."


When you have 15 minutes... 

1.  On your own:  Watch this 10 minute video with Susan Kaiser Greenland talking about how to incorporate mindfulness practices into your child’s life. Think about mindfulness activities you would like to include in your schedule this week.
2.  With your child:  Find one opportunity to give each child your undivided attention. Wait until they seem to be interested in talking about something, and be prepared to stop whatever your doing to give them your full and undivided attention.



When you have 30 minutes or more...

1.  On your own:  Do a walking meditation.  There are different ways to do walking meditations, and this is a simple set of instructions for one form from Mindful.  As they describe it: "This one relies on a pace that is close to how we might walk in everyday life, and in fact it can be adapted for walking in the street—just as long as you remember to pay attention to street lights, other people, and not looking like a zombie."

2.  With your child:  Do a body scan (great to do before going to bed!)  Here's how:
  • Lie down on a bed or some other comfortable place.
  • Take a few minutes to breathe slowly and deeply; feel gravity pulling you down.
  • When you're ready, bring your awareness to your face, including your eyes, nose, and mouth, and squeeze your face muscles together as tightly as you can, holding for a count of 10. 
  • Release and breathe.
  • Bring your awareness to your neck and shoulders.  Squeeze these muscles, bringing your shoulders as close to your ears as possible for a count of 10.
  • Release and breathe.
  • Continue moving down your body, progressively tightening and releasing the muscles in your arms and hands, abdomen, buttocks, thighs and calves, and finally feet, holding each for 10 beats.
  • Relax and breathe deeply.

Want to learn more? Go further?  There are several great books that I highly recommend, two of which include CDs with guided mindfulness and meditation exercises.  You can click on the titles below to transfer to the "Teach Your Own" store at Amazon, read descriptions of each, and order any that are of interest.
  1. The Mindful Child, by Susan Kaiser Greenland
  2. The Whole-Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel
  3. Building Emotional Intelligence, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman (includes CD)
  4. Planting Seeds, by Thich Nhat Hanh  (includes CD)
  5. Child's Mind, by Christopher Willard

When mindfulness embraces the ones we love,
they bloom like flowers.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh