Minding the Gap
Meditation, Week 4
The previous posts this month have all focused on the benefits of regular meditation and mindfulness practices and how, even when we are aware of the physical and psychological benefits of these practices, it can still be difficult to make time for them. So if it’s difficult to be mindful on a typical day, what about the days and moments when we really need them — moments of extreme stress or overwhelming emotions? What then?
Anyone who has been a parent of young children can certainly relate to this and, if we’re being honest, we must admit that even as adults we have impulsive moments when we react unconsciously and say or do something we later regret. How does mindfulness come into play in these situations?
The short answer is: by creating space. Mindfulness is the process of creating a moment of space, a gap, between when we experience an emotion and when we choose a response to it. The trigger for the emotion can be almost anything: something we see, something someone says or does to us, or even a thought we have. No matter how hard we might try (and believe me, I have tried!), we cannot control what other people do, nor can we control our emotional response to it, but what we can control is how we respond.
- First, we need to name the emotion, and often there are more than one. This may sound simple, but when emotions are strong and mixed together, it often takes some time to untangle them. And there is science that supports how important the naming process is — just saying to ourselves “I’m angry” helps our prefrontal cortex, the decision-making part of our brain, begin to “unflood” so we can think more clearly.
- Next, we need to focus on our bodies. Again, this sounds easy, but as we all know, pausing in the heat of the moment long enough to notice what’s happening in our body can be tough. If we pay attention, though, there are often physical cues that go along with an emotion that can eventually be “early warning” indicators as we become more aware.
For kids the “minding the gap” process is the same, we just need to coach them through it gently and patiently. I describe one of the first times I did this with my son, Ben, in an earlier post Developing Minds. Since that event, I’ve also noticed that sometimes I can tell even before my boys do that something has affected them — with my older son, Sam, it’s often a particular look in his eye that alerts me, and I can then ask him how he’s feeling, which helps him in directing his attention.
Finally, there’s another aspect of parenting mindfully that I don’t think is addressed as frequently as it should be, and that is “self compassion”. I was first introduced to this idea at a meditation retreat, and it deeply resonated with me. As parents, we work hard to raise our children and provide them with everything they need, and its easy to blame ourselves or feel discouraged when our kids don’t behave in the way we would like them to, when they continue to struggle with particular issues. We need to be patient with them and with ourselves. For me this can be difficult sometimes, but I find that trying to look at myself from the perspective of someone who loves me helps, as does including myself when I do lovingkindness meditations. We can all benefit from a little extra compassion from any source. So this week, practice saying to yourself…
This week’s activities have been selected to help you:
- Consider ideas for parenting mindfully,
- Find emotional and mental space in everyday moments,and
- Have some fun with your kids doing random acts of kindness.
When you have five minutes…
What can you do this week to be a more mindful parent, and create space between your emotions and your actions?
When you have 15 minutes…
When you have 30 minutes or more…
- Take food to the food bank.
- Leave flowers on the doorstep of someone you sense might benefit from some extra kindness this week.
- Offer to babysit for someone with young kids.
- Pick up trash in a neighborhood park.
- Write a thank-you note to someone whose work you appreciate: the local police/fire department, a teacher, your mailman…