Mindfulness Lessons for Parents
The bowl of sand and ants has just been dumped on the carpet. The two-year-old is engaged in his favorite pastime: flooding the bathroom. I’m the only one in the room who’s dressed, and we have to leave for preschool in 4 minutes and counting. (What a terrible slip to think I could fit in a bowel movement this morning, sheesh!)
My first thought: I need to trade these kids in for a better model. Then: I can’t let those ants crawl over the house, I need to stay home from work to vacuum. Then: I need another job that fits in better with parenting (which is good cuz I’ll probably get fired anyway). But you know what I really need? I need some mindfulness.
What Is Mindfulness?
The simple answer is mindfulness is present moment awareness. Psychology Today elaborates with: “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.” While the origin of mindfulness is in ancient Buddhist teachings, the Mindful Magazine reassures us that it’s not just the enlightened and highly spiritual who are capable of mindfulness. It’s available to us all: “Mindfulness is a quality that every human being already possesses, it’s not something you have to conjure up, you just have to learn how to access it.”
If you’re a pragmatist like me, and you’re looking at a flooded bathroom, hundreds of ants colonizing the living room, sand that may never be extricated from the carpet fibers and two kids still in their pajamas while the clock counts inexorably toward a super-strict COVID-19 prescribed school drop-off time, followed by a slightly less strict work time for me… you might be wondering how mindfulness will address the various disasters in play.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness can reduce stress levels and protect against anxiety and depression. It also helps people be more psychologically resilient, minimizing the effects of emotionally harmful experiences like isolation and rejection. (Source: Psychology Today). It also helps you focus and think more clearly. This is not just anecdotal evidence – it’s borne out by scientific studies. Mindfulness practice is also not a fringe activity adopted only by those with alternative lifestyles. Well-respected psychologists use it in therapy and treatment. Educational professionals are incorporating it into classroom activities. Even many professional athletes use mindfulness to calm nerves and increase their mental sharpness.
How To Practice Mindfulness
The most familiar mindfulness practice – meditation – is undoubtedly something you’ve heard of. Maybe it’s something you’ve tried or even a dedicated part of your daily routine. It’s definitely my preferred mental health tool, but life-changing practices are only useful if you can actually put them into practice.
At the start of our state’s strict Coronavirus lockdown in March, I had – for the first time in my life – begun to establish a consistent meditation practice. Twenty minutes, every day. I had been doing it for six weeks and had seen incredible, “miniature miracle” changes in my peace of mind, clarity of thinking and enjoyable interactions with my loved ones. Then COVID hit. And suddenly my time was reduced to two things: keeping the kids from destroying things (including each other) and trying to work. Oh, and worrying. So my time was divided into three things.
I stopped meditating because 20 uninterrupted minutes of peace and quiet wasn’t attainable in that context. That’s where other types of mindfulness practices can have greater benefit. The Mindful Magazine lists three main types of mindful activities:
- Seated, walking, standing, and moving meditation (it’s also possible lying down but often leads to sleep);
- Short pauses we insert into everyday life;
- Merging meditation practice with other activities, such as yoga or sports.
The greatest selling point for mindfulness is that it can be inserted into your life activities – at any time, in any place – to create real, practical and meaningful changes to your headspace. Unlike a seated meditation, I can do it with my kids. I can do it at the park. I can do it when it’s quiet and peaceful or when there’s shrieking and projectile toys (though it’s considerably more challenging in the latter situation). Here are a few exercises you can practice to start bringing more mindfulness into your daily activities.
Mindfulness starts with breath. Begin by inviting your breathing to become deeper and longer.
You don’t get anywhere quick with little kids. Our average “walk” is 3 blocks in about 40 minutes. Perfect opportunity to try a walking meditation! Keep an eye on the kids, but don’t necessarily try to include them in this mindfulness activity.
- Draw your awareness to your feet. How are they spread across the ground? How’s your weight distributed? What is the texture of the ground beneath them?
- Begin to walk slowly. Break down every physical action involved in walking and study it, experience it. What are your arms doing? What is the critical moment when you pass balance from right foot to left? What differences do you find from right to left? What creates “balance”? What’s going on when you lose your balance?
- The exercise can last from five minutes to an hour. The questions are meant to make you think more in-depth about your experience but don’t be attached to them specifically. Anything that forces your awareness to become fully absorbed in the experience of walking will do the trick.
Fortunately or unfortunately, parents, you have to feed your kids many times a day. Hopefully, you’re also consuming some nutrients yourself.
For this mindfulness activity dive deeply into the sensations of eating – not just to enjoy the food more, but to change your brain and become more mindful.
- Draw your awareness to the mechanics of eating. Of biting, chewing, swallowing, moving the food inside your mouth with your tongue. How does it happen like a perfectly choreographed dance?
- Draw your awareness to the sensations of eating. Hot, cold? Crunchy, chewy, tough, soft? Sweet, salty, sour, spicy? Are the sensations universally the same (i.e. do the insides of your cheeks “taste” the spicy your tongue feels)?
- Think about the journey of the food. Where did it grow? How did it get here? What’s next in its journey inside your body?
Zen Garden (aka the Sandbox)
My personal favorite mindfulness activities rely on physical sensations to ground myself in the here and now. For reasons of evolution, the physical body is perfectly tuned in to the present moment while the brain can journey anywhere in space or time. Physical sensations are a great way to unify them and moderate the anxiety, stimulation and agitation that come with a busy brain.
- This mindfulness exercise is simple. Next time you’re at the playground or the backyard sandbox, sit down. Some people pay a lot of money for an expensive sandbox, but you don’t have to!
- Stick your hands as deep into the sand as you can. Experience the temperature on your skin. Is the sand dry or moist?
- Gather a handful of sand and let it drain between your fingers. Can you control how fast or slow it pours out? Can you fine-tune your sensations to identify individual grains of sand?
- Use your fingers and palms to draw in the sand. Drawing circles and figure-eights can be soothing. Creating a pattern of shapes can engage the brain more. Be creative AND be present. Play!
In Summary:Mindfulness really means becoming intensely right here. Right now. Mindfulness exercises aim to teach your brain to live in the perfect present instead of wandering off into the stressful future or sorrowful past. Opportunities to dive in to mindfulness are everywhere! Here’s some other ideas for great activities to incorporate mindfulness in “ordinary” life.
Oh, you may have forgotten all about my getting-ready-for-work drama over the course of your mindfulness explorations. But I’d be remiss if I ended without properly wrapping up the story. I did the “insert pause into daily life for mindfulness.” I took a few deep breaths. And then I laughed. Because it really was hilarious. And then – because my thinking was clear and not a bubbling mess of Thoughtlava – I made a prioritized plan for dealing with everything.
I didn’t lose my job.
I didn’t trade in my kids.
And I only have a couple new houseguests.