One truth of family life is that it is inherently uncertain. We feel everything is under control one moment and then things suddenly change around us. We make plans that don't work out exactly as we pictured. We imagine our future one way, and then life takes a different path. Sometimes we make assumptions... and then make more assumptions based on little more than those tenuous beginnings.
As parents we also have countless habits, many of which we may not be fully aware of. We may make quick decisions and then unthinkingly stick with them -- or maybe our habit is that we never stick with anything. We define ourselves or our children in some way ('He never works hard') and assume that can never change. Day-to-day, both the sense of uncertainty and the influence of our lifelong habits are amplified when we feel overwhelmed or stressed.
But as parents, we can change and make family life far less taxing. People who spent only eight weeks practicing mindfulness reported an increased sense of well-being and decreased stress, according to a 2010 Harvard study. This was no surprise, as similar results after mindfulness training have been shown many times.
This study found something even more extraordinary. The researchers documented measurable growth in the brains of participants, even though they had practiced mindfulness on average only twenty-seven minutes a day during the eight weeks. Areas of the brain involved in emotional self-regulation, memory and learning actually increased in size. Not only did people feel better, but concrete neurological changes followed. These findings confirm the potentially life-changing benefits of even a short time spent training in mindfulness -- something I have witnessed in many parents after completing a similar six-week class.
Getting in Touch with Mindfulness
So what is mindfulness and how do you achieve it? On one level, mindfulness means paying attention and experiencing life as we live it, right now, while maintaining an open and honest perspective about whatever we encounter. With mindfulness, we still have experiences we like and some we dislike, but maybe we don't wrestle quite as much with either. Mindfulness is a way of building cognitive abilities that benefit ourselves and those around us. Through it, we cultivate an ability to manage our lives with a greater sense of balance and less stress.
Meditation, which is often part of mindfulness training, is like weight lifting. Hit the gym regularly and moving furniture around the house becomes easier. During meditation, we strengthen our ability to notice when we're acting without reflecting a moment before taking action, or doing one thing while distractedly thinking about another.
Meditation is a part of most programs that teach mindfulness, though it is not a spiritual practice. In this type of meditation the task is one of focused attention, nothing more. Our mind wanders, always, over and over again. That's what minds do -- they make thoughts. While meditating we try to focus our attention on whatever we choose, such as the sensation of breathing. When it wanders (as it always will), we deliberately bring it back again instead of remaining in rumination, daydreams or wherever else we've gone. This simple, immensely challenging act can affect how we live moment to moment.
Seeing Things As They Are
We spend so much of our day-to-day time on 'autopilot.' We find ourselves playing a board game while we're really rehashing the argument we had trying to get ready for school. We're eating dinner as a family, but visualizing unsettling images of our child failing to ever get his act together in school and winding up who knows where. Or we're consumed by a fear we've mishandled the latest outburst. Meanwhile, without full consciousness, we're reacting to things that are said or done at the table, correcting behaviors and answering questions. Or maybe snapping in anger or disappearing into ourselves, withdrawn and defensive.
Without effort, we become lost in fantasy and fears and planning and all sorts of random and not-so-random ideas and emotions. When we practice focusing our attention, in meditation and in our lives, we address this pattern. Right now, I'm going to give full attention to my children and not to planning what I'll say in tomorrow's meeting. While we'll still find ourselves becoming distracted at times, we may recover and return more easily. Children often notice the difference.
In the midst of a thousand distracting thoughts on a scattered day, focusing our attention back to real life is a radical step. Not every idea or fantasy or plan we encounter in our mind is worth validating with a response. Many of the ideas and sensations and emotions that come and go through the day seem permanent and unchangeable, yet they generally aren't. Fearing something bad will happen doesn't make it true.
When we pause and pay attention, we find some thoughts are worth our attention and others... not so much. Thoughts arise and, with a sense of calm and discernment, we enjoy what there is to enjoy and more easily sort out the rest. And, then, since anything we experience repetitively rewires the brain (as shown in the Harvard study), this change in perspective becomes part of our underlying neurology.
We practice meditation because it influences how we act throughout the rest of the day. We find our mind wandering off over and over again, and then we guide it back without ripping ourselves for having "failed" at what is basically an impossible task. As in life, we cannot always get it right, and we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for working at it in the first place. By training our ability to be attentive, we also may find ourselves more able to bring our full attention to our families, or reacting less reflexively when life makes us frustrated or angry or discovering a new solution to an old problem.
Parenting can be a humbling experience. So much is uncertain and unpredictable. We plan and predict and try to have as much fun as possible with it all, but we cannot control everything. In the face of these facts, we can instead aim to teach children basic life skills, including the capacity to handle life's ups and downs with equanimity and wisdom. But first, we need to cultivate these traits in ourselves.
Mindfulness training is a proven way to start. By practicing mindfulness meditation, we permit ourselves a few minutes a day to let our minds quiet. We strengthen our ability to notice when we're distracted and come back to reality. Every time we stop ourselves for a moment and reflect, we have the opportunity to choose where to place our next step. Lost in thought, we miss easier, lighter moments with our kids. Reacting without pause, we fall back on the same old habits, for better or worse. Taking a moment to pause and pay attention, we refocus ourselves on our daily life and on all the moment-to-moment choices we make every day.
Mindfulness: Getting Started
Here's a simple place to start bringing mindfulness into your life:
Three times a day for several weeks, pause and slow down. Pick easy times to remember, such as when you are about to leave the house, or when the kids get on the bus or before each meal. Or, practice taking a brief break when the day starts feeling overwhelming or tense.
Take a minute to focus on several breaths. Pay attention to the sensation of breathing, the physical movement of air passing through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your chest or belly or whatever else is most apparent. Notice whatever you think and feel at that moment without, for one minute, doing anything more than observing: I am rushed and my feet hurt. I am quiet and at peace now, but worried about tonight. If you need, you can take care of something when you're done; right now, give your mind a moment to settle. Count fifteen or twenty breaths, if you like. Then, gathering your resources, choose what you will do next.