More than 30 years ago, Barb Schmidt discovered the transformative experience of a daily spiritual practice--which she began as part of her healing from bulimia. Two year later, she had a daughter, and faced the challenge all spiritual parents (myself included!) know well: How to integrate meditation and mindfulness with temper tantrums and toilet training. Rather than throw up her hands, Barb, the author of the book The Practice: Simple Tools for Managing Stress, Finding Inner Peace, and Uncovering Happiness, recognized the value--not just to herself, but equally crucially to her child--of being fully present.
I perked up (after all, bringing spiritual practices to parenting is what my own book is about) when I heard that, in many lectures over the years, Barb has spoken to parents about fusing their chaotic lives with what she calls the Practice—a three part daily spiritual program created from her experiences with eclectic spiritual teachings and her study with teachers at hundreds of retreats (from the Dalai Lama to James Finley to Eckhart Tolle and more).
Here is an excerpt from our delightful conversation that I hope helps all parents reach for greater alignment:
Meryl: The first part of your recommended practice involves things to do right after you wake up. But parents often find their eyelids open to a screaming baby or a hungry child demanding breakfast.
Barb: I believe the morning is everything. It’s how you’re starting your day; you’re not overwhelmed yet. So it’s important to me that I declare that I’m stepping into my day the way I’m choosing. If you can wake up 5 or 10 minutes before your child does, that’s enough time to do a brief meditation. Or even while you’re lying in bed, after you wake up, close your eyes again and just notice that you’re breathing.
Meryl: Yes! When my kids were young, I used to try not to open my eyes, so if a child was in my bed (which happened pretty regularly), they wouldn’t know that I was awake. Then I could take a minute to center myself.
Barb: This is doable. Our life, and our time, are more under our own control than we think.
Meryl: You talk about “living present” as a way to carry that meditative mindset to the rest of your day. This is challenging for many parents because of all the balls you have to keep in the air.
Barb: I think it goes to your intentions. For me, being present for my life is my absolute priority, even if I’m not always successful. My daughter remembers that, although I went away on a lot of retreats when she was younger, when I was with her, I was really with her.
Meryl: And you use your mantra as one way to do this?
Barb: For me, a sacred mantra is key. What is your mind doing when you’re standing in line at the grocery store or the carpool line, or facing a challenge in your day? Scientists say some 85 percent of the thoughts we have are negative. Silently repeating a sacred mantra during these moments recharges our batteries, and improves our ability to be more patient and loving—which of course is what we want when we’re with our child. A mantra can be any word or phrase from any great spiritual tradition that speaks to you.
Meryl: You also talk about spiritual reading. I always say parents of small children miss an opportunity to read aloud spiritual books that interest the parent, because the child doesn’t really care about the story.
Barb: I agree! I read spiritual books with Michelle when she was young. Zen Shorts is a great one for kids because the pictures are so beautiful.
Meryl: The conscious bedtime stories series I recently wrote about is also superb.
Barb: But parents also have more time than they think to read adult books. Put a book or eReader in your car or your bag, and in those few minutes throughout the day when you’re waiting for something or someone, read. Instead of getting frustrated with the wait, you can be nourishing yourself.
Meryl: Your final practice is “letting go.” You say people should briefly review their day without judgment. But most parents can think of probably a dozen things they did in a day that they’re not proud of.
Barb: When you get into bed, the day is over and you can’t do anything to change it. But if I take a situation where I didn’t react well and look at it with a clear mind—without judgment—and follow that with my mantra, the next day I invariably have more clarity on how to tackle the situation. When you’re so focused on the anger or anxiety, it’s hard to see that things aren’t black and white—that there are 50 or 100 options in the gray.
Meryl: Your daughter is grown now; does she do the Practice?
Barb: She does her own version of it, which I love. She didn’t as a child, but sometime in college and in her first job, being around all that stress made her look for her own practice.
Meryl: When I give talks about my book, parents often ask whether spiritual practices will help make their children more enlightened. I always say their children might pick up on your spiritual interests, but they might not--and it’s all okay.
Barb: Exactly. You model it, which shows them a practice they can choose if they want to. But you don’t do it to make your children spiritual. You do this for you.
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the new book Enlightened Parenting: A Mom Reflects on Living Spiritually With Kids. She’s also been published in numerous women’s magazines, including O: The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Glamour, Redbook, and more.