Category Archives: Mindfulness
I’ve been feeling terrible these past few weeks – antsy, unfocused, unmotivated. Almost nothing I planned to work on has been touched, let alone finished – no writing, no reading any of the books in my stack, no house organization projects. Mostly I’ve chalked it up to the busyness that came with the end of the school year — final projects, graduation ceremonies, performances – quickly followed by planning for summer camps, holidays, and vacations. And while it’s true that the family schedule has been more packed than usual, it’s not enough to explain this level of agitation I’ve been feeling.
Plus, if I’m totally honest, as I look back over the past few weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to spend on non-productive things like browsing the summer clearance sales on my favorite shopping sites and re-watching movies I only sort of enjoyed the first time, not to mention the many hours spent falling down multiple online rabbit holes. Clearly the cause of this restlessness has been more than just being too busy, and now it has also become a vicious cycle – the ignored to-do list has lead to more anxiety and agitation, which has lead to more distraction and avoidance, and so the list keeps growing…
Enough! But what to do?
This morning I made a commitment to myself that I would only spend one hour clearing out my email while I drank my coffee, and then I would get off the computer and force myself to do some house-related projects. Maybe I just need some momentum, some physical activity. Fortunately for me, however, by some miracle one of the things in my email was this article by Zat Rana, “The Most Important Skill Nobody Taught You”, which I think provided the insight I need to break out of this cycle.
What’s the skill?
It’s solitude. Or more precisely, sitting in silence, without distraction because, “That’s when you’ll hear yourself think, and that’s when you’ll learn to engage the parts of you that are masked by distraction.”
It’s so frustrating to have to be reminded of something I used to know. I’ve had an on-and-off meditation practice for several years now, and it’s no coincidence that I’m currently in an “off” phase and have been for quite a while. Why is it so easy to get knocked off a path that we know is good for us? To lose healthy habits? I don’t know the answer, but I know for me that compulsive thinking – checking email, managing family logistics, looking for the next problem to solve – is addictive, even though I realize that giving into my monkey mind makes me feel anxious and exhausted.
So, here’s my plan. For the next six weeks I’ll be throttling back on everything I had planned to do, deferring everything but the most essential tasks until September. I’m going to spend more time reading, meditating, creating, and pondering the clouds and trees. It’s time to reconnect with the things that are most important, to sit quietly and let my mind settle. If I stumble across anything important I may write about it and share it here, but it’s also possible that it may be a few weeks before I sit down at the keyboard again. I just don’t know what the next few weeks hold… but I’m already feeling better!
As my teenage son turned away from me, tears in his eyes and disappointment on his face, I knew immediately that I had just made an enormous mistake, that I had missed something very important. It had been a typical, casual conversation that had suddenly gone wrong. But how?
Words of wisdom from Seth Godin this Labor Day weekend. May all of us, including our children, do “important work”.
“Instead of, ‘do what you love,’ perhaps the more effective mantra for the entrepreneur, the linchpin and maker of change might be, ‘love what you do.’
If we can fall in love with serving people, creating value, solving problems, building valuable connections and doing work that matters, it makes it far more likely we’re going to do important work.”
You know how sometimes you feel like you’re the only one struggling to do something that’s good for you, something your doctor, dentist, psychologist tells you to do? Like flossing your teeth after every meal, or drinking a gallon of water every day, or getting up at the break of dawn (or earlier) to run five miles. So you don’t talk about it, right? You just pretend you do all of these things because that’s what everyone else does, and you don’t want to look like an unhealthy slacker. Sound familiar?
Well here’s some breaking news: nobody does all of the things we’re supposed to do to be healthy. If we did we’d blind each other with our glaringly white teeth, and the part of the day when we weren’t running we’d be in the bathroom ridding ourselves of all the excess water. We’d have no time for anything else. But even though I think we all recognize, at least on some level, that it’s impossible to do everything right all of the time, we still feel bad about it. Take, for example, meditating.
Meditation is getting a lot of coverage these days, and everyone seems to be talking about it. I’ve been struggling with some health issues these past few months, requiring many trips to various health practitioners, and without a doubt (and regardless of the diagnosis given, which varies wildly from doctor to doctor), the one thing they’ve all been consistent about is telling me to meditate. I don’t disagree that meditation can have health benefits — I’ve read the research and know first-hand that I feel better, mentally and physically, when I meditate regularly. But I think we need to be careful about latching on to meditation as the “silver bullet” for whatever ails you. In fact, according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, The Stress of Not Meditating, telling someone they need to meditate can actually cause them stress.
“Nothing’s more stressful than hearing about the advantages of something you’re not doing.”
So, if you are one of the many who wants to be “calm and happy and live in the now” but who also has a mile-long list of things you can accomplish with that extra 15 minutes, you are not alone. If you are feeling stressed because you know you should meditate, your doctor, yoga teacher, or best friend has told you that you need to do it, take heart in knowing that even the person recommending it to you probably doesn’t do it, at least not regularly (although they might not admit it).
So should you give up on the idea entirely? Well, that’s up to you. But before you do, consider this:
- Meditation is only one form of mindfulness practice. If sitting on a cushion for thirty minutes a day isn’t something you want to do, there are other options. You can breathe deeply and mindfully at stop lights, or spend the first 10 minutes of your lunch time eating slowly and quietly. The idea is to incorporate small mindful moments into activities you do regularly; anything that brings on a relaxation response counts.
- You may already do things that approximate meditation. Many activities like gardening, hiking, or playing music bring our brains close to a meditative state. In short, if you lose track of time doing a favorite activity (i.e. reach a state of “flow”), you’re receiving some of the same physiological benefits as you would get through meditating on a cushion.
- There are no rules. There are many types of meditation, so you should explore the options and choose something that works for you. Also, starting slowly is perfectly acceptable — if five minutes on the cushion (or chair or bed) is all you can or want to do, just do that. The meditation police will never know and, even if they did, they don’t write tickets.
So whether you decide to jump on the meditation bandwagon or not, I think the healthiest choice any of us can make is to be honest with ourselves and everyone else about what is important to us and what we value. We are free to make our own choices, free to decide what works for us, and also free to release the guilt, shame, and fear about all the rest. “Seek the middle path” as Buddha advised — it’s all about balance, not perfection.
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…
Meditation, Week 3
- Confidence to explore and experiment
- Communication skills with people of all ages
- Academic performance
- Adaptability to change
“Making the choice to exercise restraint, empathy, compassion and even-handedness time and time again is how these qualities become habitual in both parent and child. When our kids see us being kind to others, we’re both practicing kindness ourselves and modeling it for them; when they watch us exercise patience while waiting our turn in the grocery line or when stuck in traffic, we’re both modeling patience to our kids and practicing it ourselves.”
- If you meditate, practice where your kids can see you. Never force them to join, and don’t even say anything about it. Just let them be curious and ask on their own.
- Create mindful moments. Finding opportunities to be mindful is simple, no matter how busy you are, because mindfulness can be woven into common daily experiences (see some suggestions in “Activities” below). When you’re feeling overwhelmed or distracted by your own emotions, name the feeling you’re having, and say what you’re doing (out loud if your kids are nearby). For example, “I’m so frustrated – I didn’t expect this traffic and I’m worried we’re going to be late. I need to take a breath and calm down.”
- Focus on the small stuff. It’s the small moments that matter, not the big exciting ones. Pointing out an interesting cloud, or sitting quietly together having a snack – these are the experiences that make your kids feel connected.
- Give your undivided attention. This is what your kids want (even teenagers!) more than anything. Let them choose the moment, and be ready to seize the opportunity when it arrives. Make eye contact, listen more than you speak, and stay as open as possible — no judging! Even if it’s just for a few minutes, it matters.
Activities for Meditation, Week3
This week’s activities have been selected to help you:
- Practice incorporating mindfulness into your regular daily routine,
- Share your meditation and/or mindfulness practice with your kids,
- Experience other forms of meditation, including an eating and walking.
When you have five minutes…
“…study the grapes for a few minutes, examining them in the light, playing with them in your fingers, bringing them to your lips… notice if you salivate. Then, gently, without biting into it, place the grape on your tongue, and notice any urges that come up. Notice what your tongue and mouth do, or want to do, as you taste the grape. When you are ready, bite into the grape, noticing the flavors and textures. How is your stomach feeling? And the rest of your body? After swallowing, notice any left over flavor remaining in your mouth… and thoughts in your mind.”
When you have 15 minutes…
1. On your own: Watch this 10 minute video with Susan Kaiser Greenland talking about how to incorporate mindfulness practices into your child’s life. Think about mindfulness activities you would like to include in your schedule this week.
When you have 30 minutes or more…
- Lie down on a bed or some other comfortable place.
- Take a few minutes to breathe slowly and deeply; feel gravity pulling you down.
- When you’re ready, bring your awareness to your face, including your eyes, nose, and mouth, and squeeze your face muscles together as tightly as you can, holding for a count of 10.
- Release and breathe.
- Bring your awareness to your neck and shoulders. Squeeze these muscles, bringing your shoulders as close to your ears as possible for a count of 10.
- Release and breathe.
- Continue moving down your body, progressively tightening and releasing the muscles in your arms and hands, abdomen, buttocks, thighs and calves, and finally feet, holding each for 10 beats.
- Relax and breathe deeply.
Want to learn more? Go further? There are several great books that I highly recommend, two of which include CDs with guided mindfulness and meditation exercises. You can click on the titles below to transfer to the “Teach Your Own” store at Amazon, read descriptions of each, and order any that are of interest.
- The Mindful Child, by Susan Kaiser Greenland
- The Whole-Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel
- Building Emotional Intelligence, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman (includes CD)
- Planting Seeds, by Thich Nhat Hanh (includes CD)
- Child’s Mind, by Christopher Willard
If you’re in the “not certain” group, the only way to know for sure is to try a few meditation sessions or develop some mindfulness practices and see for yourself (see the link to guided meditations at the end of the post “Do You Meditate?”). Trying to describe meditation is like trying to describe crème brûlée (I’m something of a fanatic about this dessert) to someone who has never tasted it: I can list the ingredients, tell you how it was prepared, and compare the taste to another food, but you can’t really know what it is like until you try it for yourself.
If you are in the “unconvinced” group, or maybe you’re convinced but you’re having difficulty making meditation part of your regular routine, looking at the science behind meditation may help. You have likely heard about (and maybe experienced) the reduction in stress and anxiety that comes with meditation, but did you also know that a regular practice can have physical impacts on your body? For example, researchers are finding that meditation can:
- Reduce your blood pressure,
- Change the structure of your brain, increasing the connections (and size) of the areas responsible for decision making, attention, and memory,
- Affect how your genes are expressed,
- Decrease the occurrences of stress-related illness, and
- Slow down the aging process.
- Schedule it. All healthy behaviors need to be scheduled until they become a habit. Ideally you should schedule it at the same time every day, and connect it to something you already do every day (like after you brush your teeth).
- Work up to it. Thirty or forty minutes of meditation will be hard if you’re just starting out. Start with just 5-10 minute sessions, and add 5 minutes a week.
- Start with guided meditations. A guided meditation, especially one geared for beginners, will give you the assurance that you’re “doing it right”. It will take a few sessions to get the hang of it, so be patient with yourself.
- Make peace with restlessness. It’s completely normal for everyone, even experienced meditators, to feel restless while they are trying to sit still. One way to help with this is to do some gentle stretching beforehand (yoga is actually a physical preparation for meditation). When you do start feeling restless (because it will happen sooner or later!), don’t react — see if you can just notice what restlessness feels like in your body. Some people have found that this is particularly challenging for them, so do your best to keep working with it, and keep in mind that restlessness has never killed anyone, so you’ll be fine!
Activities for Meditation, Week 2
- Understand how meditation can affect your health and well-being,
- Be more aware of how your thoughts affect your emotions and actions,
- Experience how focusing on one concept like gratefulness can affect you.
The word manifests as the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character.
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let it spring from love,
Born out of compassion for all human beings.
As the shadow follows the body,
As we think, so we become.” – Saying of the Buddha
- “Start by silently stating to yourself specific things in your life you’re grateful for, particularly items you’d normally take for granted. Go slowly so you really feel the gratefulness for each item.”
- “After about thirty seconds, stop thinking and focus on the physical sensation of gratefulness. You’ll feel it coming directly from your heart.”
- “As this energy emanates from your heart, your chest will soften and open. In this state you will feel an overwhelming presence approach you, filled with the power of infinite giving.”
- Calming down when they are overwhelmed by big emotions like anger or sadness
- Focusing and concentrating
- Managing stress and anxiety
- Cultivating compassion and gratitude
So whether you are new to meditation, or want to recommit to your practice, check out the list below for activities you can do this week. And stay tuned for next week (learn how here), as we learn more about the science behind meditation, and prepare to teach our kids!
Activities for Meditation, Week 1
If you do all of these activities this week, you will:
- Begin increasing your level of mindfulness,
- Learn about meditation (or recommit to your practice if you already meditate),
- Experience a few short meditation sessions.
When you have one minute…
- Notice your breathing (fast, slow, shallow?),
- Do a quick body scan, noting any areas of tension or discomfort, and
- Breathe into those areas of your body.
Learn more about mindfulness and meditation.
- Watch this excellent TED Talk by Andy Puddicombe describing meditation and mindfulness (10 minutes)
- Decide if you’d like to try a couple of meditations and, if so, when and where you will do them.
- Go to this link: Guided Meditations
- Choose one of the meditations from the list of options that is of interest to you. If you are new to meditation I suggest choosing the one entitled “Complete Meditation Instructions” (19 minutes).
- Once you feel more comfortable with what to do, explore some of the other meditations.
If you’d like to learn more about MindPooling,
check out the MindPooling Overview.
MindPooling is an idea-generator and sharing platform for parents. Every week subscribers receive updated information on interesting research, useful tools, and insightful resources about important topics related to the education and development of children.
Because there’s so much great information out there. We can all use some extra support in helping our kids reach their full potential, but finding the best ideas and tools requires time — lots of time! And even when we do come across a great resource, figuring out how to apply it can be a challenge.
How Does It Work?
Each month “Teach Your Own” selects a topic related to parenting and education (for example, Meditation is the topic for May). Each Tuesday of the month we send out an article sharing some of the most interesting and useful information available on the topic, with a list of tools, resources, and activities provided at the end.
And here’s where it gets really good! After you read the article or try one of the activities, you share your thoughts, experiences, questions, and/or recommendations for related ideas and resources. Others will be sharing as well, so the learning opportunities are rich.
Where Do I Sign Up?
The Teach Your Own page on Facebook is our primary platform, so all you need to do is visit the page and “Like” it, and you will automatically receive the weekly editions of “MindPooling”.
Where Does the Term “MindPooling” Come From?