October 10, 1997 in Features

The Art Of Mindfulness

Kathleen Corkery Spencer Correspondent
 

Your daughter has just shaved the cat and is now attempting to flush kitty down the toilet.

Breathe, grasshopper.

Your toddler has just thrown his fourth tantrum of the day and it isn’t yet noon.

Be here now, little Buddha.

Your teenager would rather walk on glass than walk beside you in the mall.

OM.

Each of these scenes, according to authors Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn, provide the opportunity for parents to lose their minds or to practice their “mindfulness.”

In their new book, “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting,” mindfulness is defined as “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It is cultivated by refining our capacity to pay attention, intentionally, in the present moment, and then sustaining that attention over time as best we can.”

Yes, grasshopper. It’s about getting off automatic pilot and paying attention to what you are doing while you are doing it. In other words, don’t try to talk on the phone while you dress your kids and cook breakfast and feed the dog and pull the cat from the toilet.

Mindfulness flies in the face of the way most of us live our lives today: performing multiple tasks simultaneously in an increasingly frantic and automatic way.

“Mindful parenting is best seen as a practice, a discipline, and not simply as a good idea,” write the authors. So how do we practice it? Well, it isn’t exactly like piano lessons or golf swings.

There is formal and informal practice. Formal practice involves setting aside some time each day for meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises. Jon, associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is a devotee of formal practice. He is recognized internationally for integrating mindfulness meditation into mainstream Western medicine.

Myla, a childbirth educator, follows a more informal practice which, in her words, “simply means intentionally remembering to be fully present with whatever comes up. When you are hugging your child, you are hugging your child.” And your child, in the Kabat-Zinns’ view, is your live-in Buddha and parenting is in some ways analogous to an 18-year meditative retreat.

Sometimes the trouble with Zen is that it’s, well, so Zen. The concepts are elusive, like trying to catch moonbeams with a butterfly net. Questions are answered with questions.

Mindfulness then, is an arguably slippery subject for the typical “how-to” approach of most parenting guides. Particularly if your personal live-in Buddha more closely resembles Attila the Hun.

For a lot of stressed-out parents, the chaos of everyday living can be overwhelming. For them, being present on a moment-to-moment basis might mean just making sure their kids don’t electrocute, maim or flush anyone, including themselves, down the toilet.

Mindfulness practitioners agree that between moments of enlightenment there’s a lot of grunt work. And most people need more instruction than a book can offer. Fortunately, because of the burgeoning popularity of alternative living/parenting methods, there are resources cropping up in cities across the country to help novices get started.

“Without help, it’s hard to stick with it unless you’re the Dali Lama,” says Dr. Marilyn Ream, a Group Health family physician in Spokane. Ream, who teaches Skills for Mindful Living classes for Group Health members, says that “to remain mindful, you have to start again a thousand times a day and even then you’re still going to lose it. But, at least you’ll realize that you’ve lost it and can bring yourself back to the present. It’s really important not to turn it into one more thing that you don’t do well.”

Guilt and second-guessing are the constant companions of many parents. But the non-judgmental approach of mindful parenting applies to both parent and child. “It’s important,” says Ream “to be aware of what you’re doing, or not doing, to stir the pot in any situation. Sometimes, you aren’t doing anything. We all know kids who act perfectly wonderful until their parents show up. The issue in mindfulness work is being 100 percent responsible for your 50 percent of the experience.”

But only your 50 percent. Attila the Hun will still need a time out. And parents who nourish their own spirits first may find it easier to be present for their children.

“It’s like the oxygen masks on airplanes,” says Dr. Mary Gentile, a Spokane clinical psychologist and pioneer in bringing mindfulness practice to the Northwest. “The parent puts on the mask first and then gives it to the child. If you want to teach your child ways of being in the world that are profoundly useful, you have to be that way yourself first.” It isn’t always easy.

“Today,” says Barbara Briscoe, a Spokane psychotherapist whose focus is on body/ mind integration, “there is so much stress in daily living that it’s easy to get off center. Then, when you add children into the mix, who are extremely needy by nature, there are these quantum needs that have to be filled. People end up feeling exhausted and guilty for not doing it all perfectly when, in fact, there is no way to do it perfectly.” There is, however, a way to do it mindfully.

“Start with the idea that you need to feed yourself first before you can feed others,” says Gentile. “Too many parents give up all their coping skills - exercise, prayer time, friendships - to satisfy the needs of their children. It’s easy to do because the things that help us cope, even when they don’t take up too much time, have to be done daily.” Still, it’s important for parents to make time for themselves.

“Next,” adds Briscoe, ” … slow down. Simplify and slow down.” Change little things like cutting out an hour of TV, spending less time on the Internet and reducing kids’ outside activities to those they truly enjoy. Replace these activities with a family bike ride, a game of Monopoly or a weekly story hour. Teach by example. “The best way to plant a seed is to be the flower,” says Briscoe. “Try to do things one at a time.”

“Our time and energy is like peanut butter,” says Gentile. “We only get so much each day and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If it’s spread too thin, we start to lose it. Ask yourself at the beginning of each day, how do I want to allocate the peanut butter?”

Cultivating some kind of formal mindfulness practice is the next step. It can be as simple as spending five minutes a day sitting quietly, bringing your breath into your abdomen and watching the breath as it flows in and out.

“This subtle shift in awareness,” says Gentile “may lead to seeing things differently and give people a sense of having more options, more strength and more compassion.” And it is compassion, or loving kindness, that is at the core of mindful parenting.

“Becoming a parent may happen on purpose or by accident,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn “but how ever it comes about, parenting itself is a calling. When a child, no matter how old, feels our acceptance and our love, not just for his easy-to-live with, lovable attractive self, but also for his difficult, repulsive, exasperating self, it feeds him and frees him to become more balanced and whole.”


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