"Learning how to become emotionally literate is one of the best investments that human beings can make for themselves, their children, and the future." ~ Ayman Sawaf
When I was a young boy, I thought that the tender spot under the elbow was called the "funny bone" because you were supposed to laugh when you bumped it ... and that's exactly what I did. I laughed out loud, giggled, and had a pretty good time whenever I accidentally struck it against something hard. As time went by, however, I noticed that no one else thought hitting your funny bone was funny. Following the cue from the grown-up world around me, I learned to grit my teeth, bite my lip, and curse under my breath just like they did.
Most of us have taken our cues from the grown-up world when it comes to reacting to emotions too. As children, it may have been implied that anger was bad, that sadness, shyness, stress, and anxiety were weak, and pleasantness, happiness, and cheer were good. How did the grown-ups around us react to their own emotions? In other words, how did they feel about feelings? What did we pick up along the way? Did we learn to shut down, withdrawal, lash out, go numb, or in any other way deny, suppress, repress, or otherwise react to emotions rather than respond to them – in ourselves, and in others? Like the funny bone analogy, what we experience when we feel difficult emotions might be a learned or conditioned perspective. Maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe there’s something else to be seen and experienced – maybe we can laugh and be happy while we’re simultaneously in pain or discomfort.
"Never mind what I have been taught. Forget about theories and prejudgments and stereotypes. I want to understand the true nature of life. I want to know what this experience of being alive really is. I want to apprehend the true and deepest qualities of life, and I don't want to just accept somebody else's explanation. I want to see it for myself." ~ Bhante G
That sums up mindfulness perfectly and expresses a desire to ask ourselves, “What is this?” Difficult or challenging feelings/emotions in our bodies can be felt in very different ways depending on how we react or respond to them. Remember that the feeling of emotions in our bodies can be mindfully experienced apart from our thoughts and attitudes about them and apart from the thoughts that arise because of them. Isolated from thoughts, emotions can simply be felt and explored in the body with openness, curiosity, and wonder.
For example, if I happen to experience anger, tension, stress, or anxiety I first try to let go of the concepts I have for that emotion including the name of that emotion and my attitude towards it such as "bad," "unwanted," undesirable," and "uncomfortable." Next, I try to invite it into my awareness completely. I let it fill my awareness as much as I can and then begin to explore the physical experience with as much openness and curiosity as I can relax into. Sometimes the feeling of anger in my body becomes a neutral feeling and then shifts into joy, laughter, happiness, or just innocuous power.
This is often easier to experiment with in the formal practice of mindfulness meditation than it is on-the-fly in daily life, but that being said, the next time you feel an intense and unwanted emotion try to:
1. Find it in your body.
2. Let go of your reactive thoughts and conditioned judgments about the feeling.
3. Completely open to the feeling in your body - Don’t resist the discomfort or try to make it go away.
4. Open to the possibility that this emotion/feeling in your body is not what you've been taught it is. Maybe you’ve been taught that it should feel bad, and your experience is merely falling in line with the conditioned expectation.
5. Ask yourself, “What is this?” Let go of thoughts, and just feel.
Through this kind of openness, not only do we find ways of letting go of old emotional habits and conditioned reactions, we’re also less likely to pass on these old ways to our own children. Maybe we’ll find some beauty and freedom within us that has long been hidden – maybe we’ll then pass this sense of wonder and curiosity for life on to our little ones.
Almost daily my ten and nine year old daughters face some kind of emotional challenge. (Who doesn’t?) Sometimes they can’t find their favorite toy, or they have too much homework, or they’re (really) mad at each other for one reason or another. Whatever the case, I’ve found that everything’s better with hugs. As often as I can and before I try to “fix” anything I kneel down beside them and draw them in with a big warm Daddy-hug. Now that I think about it, there’s often nothing left to fix after a well-timed and quiet moment of affectionate touch, and according to a growing body of research it’s all because of oxytocin. “Oxy-what?”
You know that soothing, warm, loving feeling you get inside when you hug someone close? That’s Oxytocin. It’s a hormone released in the body and brain in response to affectionate touch, hugs, and breastfeeding. In fact, oxytocin is sometimes referred to as "the bonding hormone," "the cuddle hormone," or even "the love hormone." Not only does it feel really good when it’s released into our system, it’s REALLY, REALLY good for our physical, mental, emotional, and social well-being. Oxytocin (think affectionate touch and hugging):
· Promotes feelings of calm and nurturance
· Promotes feelings of trust, security, and closeness
· Promotes maternal behavior and infant bonding (and these help
children form healthier relationships later in life)
· Enhances positive family and social bonding
· Counteracts stress
· Lowers blood pressure
· And helps to regulate sleep patterns
And make sure you give your loved ones what I call “belly hugs.” If you haven’t already, begin to notice the difference between the kind of hug that only allows touching between our shoulders and upper torsos, and the kind of hug where our chests and bellies touch. That’s an oxytocin hug. Pull them close, soften your belly, let your breathing be slow, full, and relaxed, and imagine your presence reaching out beyond the perceived boundaries of your body to embrace them completely in a womb-like experience. (Love is sooo good)
I’ve also found hugs and affectionate touch to be a beautiful meditation practice. I slow down just enough to drop out of my auto-pilot mode, immerse myself in the simplicity of the moment, and allow the sensory experience to completely fill my conscious awareness. In doing so, there’s no more room in my mind for to-do-lists, worries, and stressful thoughts. Time seems to stand still and it’s just me, my loved one, and the miracle and aliveness of this precious moment. It’s a sacred pause – and there’s nothing better than letting the stillness of those moments fill my heart, my mind, and my senses.
You can practice this kind of meditation while you’re breastfeeding, changing a diaper, bathing them, dressing them, holding hands with them, carrying them, giving them piggy-back-rides, tickling them, etc. Engage your senses. Breathe them in when you’re close together. Continually let go of your thoughts and daydreams and literally come to your senses.
They tell me that there’s a time coming when my soon-to-be teenage daughters won’t want to be hugged as much. I don’t believe it, but just in case they’re right, I’m gettin’ in a healthy dose every day. You?
We’ll talk about these and other subjects at our next Mindful Parenting Group on Tuesday, April 26th at 6:30 p.m.
Until then, make sure you check out our collection of mindful parenting resources and monthly blog at www.whyimeditate.com/mindful-parenting.html
The mind automatically judges every experience we have as either good (I like this – I want more), bad (I don’t like this – I have to make it stop), or irrelevant (this isn’t worth paying attention to). See if you can objectively notice these involuntary thoughts in your daily life and step back from believing them or acting on them. Just let them arise and pass away. You don’t have to judge the judging.
Be patient with yourself. Your growth happens in its own way and in its own time. Embrace the process, embrace this moment, and fully embrace yourself. This kind of patience helps us to love ourselves completely and unconditionally in this moment. Don’t wait to love yourself – if not now, then when?
See everything with new eyes. Try to open to each new moment and everything in it as though it were the first time you were here – your emotions, your loved ones, nature, etc. Doing so helps to reconnect us with a fresh sense of openness, curiosity, genuine interest, and wonder.
Develop a basic trust in yourself and your feelings. Trust in your own authority and intuition, even if you make some “mistakes” along the way. Learn to honor your feelings and take responsibility for yourself and your own wellbeing.
Hand-in-hand with patience and non-judging, adopting an attitude of non-striving allows us to settle into this moment and rest from the life-long struggle of trying to get to someplace “better.” Counterintuitively, healthy personal growth is nourished more by “being” than by “doing.” Just be yourself and rest in the profound peace that comes with realizing that you are never not yourself. You are enough.
In this context, acceptance is not synonymous with compliant, passive, or uninvolved. It simply means having the willingness to step back from mental and emotional reactivity knowing that you are big enough and capable enough to handle whatever arises within you and around you. Wisdom and insight are more easily accessible from this inner stance, and you are more likely to respond creatively and authentically to whatever you encounter.
The opposite of letting go is control and we can exhaust ourselves by trying to control everything within and around us. And have you noticed that what we try to control actually controls us? By letting go and stepping back from the habit of control we enter a place of inner peace and freedom. We become more resilient, and find ways of engaging Life that might have been beyond our reach before.
“Life is like an ever-shifting kaleidoscope - a slight change, and all patterns alter.” ~ Sharon Salzberg
More than I’d like to admit, I seem to spend much of the day drifting along on auto-pilot. While my mind falls repeatedly into ceaseless streams of thought and is swept away from the present moment, my body moves along almost unconsciously from one activity to the next. It’s a very disembodied and disconnected experience, and for most of us it’s a long-standing habit.
The big challenge comes when I call on my mind to attend to my loved ones in the here-and-now. It’s not always easy to slow down, to stop, and to deeply connect with them. It can often feel like this auto-pilot mode develops a sort of momentum that repeatedly carries me away from those human connections I value so much.
A little practice that I use often to counteract the auto-pilot mode is to repeat the phrase “I Love You” in my own mind like a mantra. I say it clearly, softly, and slowly a few times when I’m with my loved ones and I’ve found that it easily settles my mind into the present moment, quiets the mental chatter, helps me feel more deeply connected with them, and softens my heart at the same time. Feel free to experiment with whatever phrase or mantra feels right to you, but try it out a few times.
Try it out with other relationships too. Say it to the other drivers on the road, to anyone else with you in the grocery aisle, to your friends, to your co-workers and associates, and to anyone else you happen to come in contact with. You don't have to be obvious about it, and you don't even have to feel anything amazing or "spiritual." Just try it out with a sense of openness and curiosity and see what the experience is like.
Oh, and by the way, "I love you." :)
Make sure to check out our other mindfulness resources, groups, and events, and feel to contact me anytime for anything. I look forward to hearing from you.
Kids are bad at lying, at least at first. In the magical fairy dust of the childhood mind, kids initially have a hard time distinguishing reality from fancy, which you can see in their eagerness to engage in imaginative play.
They also perceive their parents to be essentially omniscient, a belief that won't be completely destroyed until the 20-kiloton blast of puberty. The fuse gets lit early, though, around 36 months, when kids begin to realize that parents can't always read their minds. To their delight (or horror), children discover they can give their parents false information without its being detected. Or, at least, they think they can. The child's realization that you can't always read his or her mind coincides with the flowering of something we call Theory of Mind skills.
What is Theory of Mind? This video explains:
A key ingredient in mindful parenting is the daily practice of mindfulness meditation, but it can be challenging to take time to care for ourselves in this way. So often I hear parents say something like, “I just don’t have the time. Their needs have to come first.” So, here are two thoughts to consider. I’ve found them helpful in maintaining a daily practice when I too feel like I can’t make the time for meditation.
As heart-felt my desire may be to provide a constant source of support and love for my children and family, I’m not a machine. My spirit may be infinitely loving and powerful, but I have a body, a brain, and emotions that need to be replenished daily. In order to bring resilience, unconditional love, and presence to the parent/child relationship, I have to intentionally, gently, and deeply nurture these qualities within on a daily basis. “To keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it.” ~ Mother Theresa
Modeling Self-Care and Self-Love
Our children, especially in the pre-verbal stages of development, learn through imitation. They learn from what we say, but they also learn from what we do. Just think of how a baby learned to hold a phone to her ear. I can teach my children the importance of loving themselves, but am I showing them how on a consistent basis? I’ve modeled how to love others, but have I ever modeled how to love myself?
Developing a routine can help. We can make the routine of meditation as important as the routine of mealtimes. My own children see me meditate frequently. I often meditate first thing in the morning and my little ones are so used to it that they climb up on my lap until I’m done, or play nearby in whatever room I’m sitting. You don’t have to meditate for an hour either – in the beginning, try starting the day with just 10 or 15 minutes. And take “One-Minute Breathers” often throughout the day. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, let your body relax one muscle group at a time from your feet to your face, and close the minute with a silent “Thank You.”
“It’s ok to take time for yourself, to take care of yourself. In fact, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself … and everyone you love.” ~ Cheri Huber
As mindful parents, we understand that our children are sovereign little human beings under our care and tutelage for a short time. We recognize the importance of doing what we can to help them become independent and self-reliant individuals, able to question authority, able to chart their own course, able to think for themselves and believe in themselves. We don’t want to raise automatons, robots, and merely obedient souls. If we never allow them to explore how and when to say “No,” they may be left to figure it out on their own – in peer relationships or out in the grown-up world.
This means, necessarily, that we have to find ways to let them say no - to us - in the safe and supportive environment of the parent/child relationship. This requires a bit of mindfulness, wisdom, compassion, and patience on our part, and it requires that we slow down in the moment to look within and get curious about our own resistance to the word, “No.”
Keep these questions in mind if you react with anger or frustration to a “No”:
1. Is it always “bad” for our children to say, “No?”
2. Isn’t it good to learn how and when to say, “No?” After all, his is how we set healthy boundaries and protect ourselves.
3. Am I reacting to my own inner discomfort and duress or responding to the needs of this little human in this moment?
4. Am I parenting in this moment, or are my conditioned emotional reactions doing the parenting?
When it’s not a dangerous situation and doing so won’t put anyone in harm’s way experiment with letting them “get away with it.” Let them choose their own course sometimes. Allow them the opportunity to make some mistakes (with no finger-wagging or I-told-you-so’s). Let them enjoy the freedom to say “No” while you enjoy the freedom of letting go.
Have you ever noticed that the mind has a mind of its own? Our thoughts are rarely engaged fully in the simplicity of present moment, but are often ruminating over problems in the past or potential problems in the future. This is problematic for at least two reasons. One, the body doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality and responds to stressful thoughts no differently than stressful events. Hence, we end up carrying the stress of the past and the future into the present. Two, this robs us of our connection to life, our loved ones, and ourselves, all of which only truly exist in this present moment.
A mantra can be a tool for peace of mind and healing. It encourages long, slow, diaphragmatic (deep) breathing which is deeply relaxing for the body, and since the breath and the sound of our voice only occur in the present moment, it also serves as an anchor for the mind when we find ourselves stressing unnecessarily about the past or the future.
If you’re uncomfortable walking around chanting “Om” all day, try using a favorite song or lullaby instead. Just slow it down a bit, and softly hum to yourself. Each time your thoughts carry you away to the past or the future, gently return to the sound of your own voice and the feeling of your breath. It’s normal for the mind to constantly wander away from the mantra – don’t judge yourself for it. Your mind might wander away 100 times in five minutes, or five minutes into the mantra you might completely forget about it and not remember until the end of the day. No worries. Again this is normal – everyone experiences this. Don’t stress over the mantra too!
If you stick with it for even ten or twenty moments, you’ll find that the mind tends to settle down, your thoughts become less agitated and random, and your body will soften and relax into the flow of the present moment. You’ll also find that as you relax, so will your little ones, and they love the soothing sound of mommy’s humming too.
First, a selection on anger by Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick Not Han). "Mindfulness does not fight anger or despair. Mindfulness is there in order to recognize. To be mindful of something is to recognize that something is there in the present moment. Mindfulness is the capacity of being aware of what is going on in the present moment. 'Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me; breathing out, I smile towards my anger.' This is not an act of suppression or of fighting. It is an act of recognizing. Once we recognize our anger, we embrace it with a lot of awareness, a lot of tenderness.
"When it is cold in your room, you turn on the heater, and the heater begins to send out waves of hot air. The cold air doesn't have to leave the room for the room to become warm. The cold air is embraced by the hot air and becomes warm-there's no fighting at all between them.
"We practice taking care of our anger in the same way. Mindfulness recognizes anger, is aware of its presence, accepts and allows it to be there. Mindfulness is like a big brother who does not suppress his younger brother's suffering. He simply says, 'Dear brother, I'm here for you.' You take your younger brother in your arms and you comfort him. This is exactly our practice.
"Imagine a mother getting angry with her baby and hitting him when he cries. That mother does not know that she and her baby are one. We are mothers of our anger and we have to help our baby, our anger, not fight and destroy it. Our anger is us and our compassion is also us. To meditate does not mean to fight. In mindfulness, the practice of meditation should be the practice of embracing and transforming, not of fighting."
So, as disingenuous and awkward as it might seem to your mind, set the intention to experiment with your subjective experience of anger by following these steps:
1. When you first become aware of the feeling of anger see if you can consciously “label” the emotional experience by gently saying to yourself something like, “I’m experiencing anger.” This is called “metal noting,” and it’s a very important step in changing direction.
2. Connect with the sensation of a few breaths in a relaxed belly to help ground you in the present moment and liberate you from the involuntary ruminative and discursive thoughts that tend to dominate our minds when we’re angry.
3. Open to anger for a few moments as a physical experience in your body and do so with a sense of innocent curiosity. It is sometimes helpful to consciously ask something like, “What is this sensation in my body?”
4. With tenderness, non-judgment, and without expectation for any particular outcome enter into a dialogue with your anger by asking it questions like, "What needs are you trying to communicate? How can I help meet those needs?" Quite often you'll find that all it (you) needed was to be heard, validated, and understood.
Every emotional event we experience unfolds differently than we would normally expect when we simply bring unbiased, if not compassionate awareness to what is actually happening within us in the present moment.
When we practice with Mindful Parenting techniques, are we looking for something to cure us of our humanity? Are we looking for something that will help us get really good at control while disguising it as spiritual evolution at the same time?
Life is a mess, so am I, so are you, and so is your neighbor. Personally, I think movement towards real insight, clarity, and peace of mind occurs with more grace and potency when we allow ourselves to have a sense of humor about this big ol' mess we're in.
Try this ...
See if you can catch yourself this week in a moment of emotional messiness - stressed out, anxious, frustrated, lost, worrying - and follow these three steps:
1. Physically stop what you're doing if you can - even if it's only for a few seconds.
2. Become fully aware of and attentive towards the sensation of the breath as it comes and goes in the belly for those few seconds. It may sound silly, but if you find your mind is in a really agitated state it can even be very grounding to sub-verbally count each in-breath and out-breath. Try counting the in-breath/out-breath cycle (1) up to ten. When the mind pulls you away to something else, simply return to the breath with a slow and easy sense of gentleness and tenderness.
The unconscious mind has a mind of its own and is really good at highlighting the difficulties in each moment. Connecting with the breath can help us anchor to the simplicity of the present moment. Even if the present moment IS a mess, it's easier to work it with one moment at a time - breath by breath.
Too often, what is really happening in the here and now is complicated and burdened by stories from our past and anxieties about the future.
3. Say to yourself something like "I LOVE this crazy mess!" with a big smile on your face. It may sound trite, but actively engaging the craziness of the moment with a sense of humor is far better than being a victim of perfectionism.