Living in close proximity every day with our families can be tricky, exhausting, joyful, stressful, easy, impossible. When we bring an acceptance to the variety of emotions that we might experience on a daily basis and to their intensity then we have more chance of finding our way in this new home life that we find ourselves in. If we continually struggle against what is, then we layer our stress with agitation, resistance and frustration which exacerbates any difficult emotion that we are experiencing.
Here are a few things that you can do, to begin to create space so that you can more easily pause your reactivity and in that space choose perhaps a wiser, more compassionate, more humorous response. The following are mindfulness practices that begin to train the mind to come into stillness. The more often we practise these, the more we cultivate calm and responsibility, and the less we are controlled by our own habits of reactivity.
Tip 1 - The Body Scan
This might take 30 minutes or whatever time you have available. It is important to find a place where you can either lie down or sit comfortably without being disturbed. We bring our attention into the body with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement. In doing this, we are simply changing how we relate to our body. We are expanding our awareness, training our mind to be present.
Take a few minutes to simply follow your in breath and out breath, ground yourself in this moment, feel the points of contact with the floor or the chair and then imagine breathing in and out of different parts of the body. You might start with your face. Notice any tensions in the eyes, breathe into the eyes, noticing any sensation and on the out breath allow the eyes to rest and relax, if possible.
Move your attention around the body, breathing in and out to and from different areas. Notice what is there; be curious, exploring the sensations, allowing whatever is there to be there, and allowing the breath to soothe and soften. This is the first ‘mind training’ and we might find that the mind wanders during this practice. This is what minds do and if we accept this and notice, then that is an act of mindfulness. We simply bring the mind back to the body. When we feel the body, we know we are in the present moment. It can be helpful to use a guided bodyscan. You can access mine here.
Tip 2 - POP and Breathe Practice
This practice can be done in 30 seconds, 3 minutes, 30 minutes (whatever time you have available) and is a lovely practice to share with your children. It brings mindfulness into everyday life. It allows us to check in with ourselves and create a space where we can choose how we respond to ourselves and those around us:
As a result of this practice, we begin the habit of checking in to see how are feeling, rather than letting the feelings of fear and anxiety build up inside our heads. Check in with yourself as you would do with a friend: Are you worried, relaxed, calm or anxious? What do you need right now? Maybe it’s a cup of tea, a chat with a friend, to listen to music, to do some exercise. Whatever it may be, we can still do all these things to lift our spirits and get in touch with our joyful selves. You can access this meditation here.
Tip 3 - Mindful Walking
When the mind is very agitated or experiencing a lot of anger or overwhelm, this practice can prove very helpful. If you are experiencing a lot of activity in the mind, mindful walking can help to ground your awareness in the present moment.
Mindful walking can be done in the kitchen, office, out in nature, on a busy street - indeed any time that you are walking.
You simply slow down you walk, focus on your steps, bring your attention to the soles of your feet and become aware of your breathing. As you take more mindful steps you might want to breathe with the steps and say to yourself “in, out”. Focusing on the soles of your feet helps you to drop out of your head and into your body. You can walk really slowly if it’s appropriate and you don’t feel too weird! Or you can walk at normal pace and just be aware of your breath and the soles of the feet. After a while you might want to bring your awareness to your senses as you walk, noticing what you hear, see, smell, and feel. You can access my mindful walking recording here.
You can also share this with your children – encourage them to pay attention first of all to all the things that they can hear, smell, see, feel. It is also fun to give children different ways of walking – like someone who is really happy/sad/angry and then to practise walking mindfully, slowly noticing the soles of their feet and opening their senses one by one. Then change again to walking like a cowboy/stilt walker/baby etc, then back to walking mindfully. If you would like to listen to a guided walking meditation visit my soundcloud page here.
Tip 4 - Mindful Shower
You are not your emotions and with mindfulness practices you can begin to appreciate the beauty in the ordinary and every day, simply by paying attention to everyday activities. As parents it may be difficult to find time for yourself but mindfulness isn’t only about sitting in meditation or practising the body scan; the more we can bring mindfulness to our everyday/mundane chores and activities the more we can integrate it into how we live our lives.
When you step into the shower, open your senses. So rather than jumping in and out or simply going through the motions, planning your day or going over the day that you have had, take an extra 5 minutes to really savour the experience. Start by bringing awareness to the sound of the water falling on your body or into the shower basin. Look at the way the water falls and gathers, splashes and disappears. Feel the sensation and temperature of the water falling on different parts of the body. Take time to really smell the shower gel or soap. Breathe with all these sensations and allow the mindful shower to restore and refresh. We can apply the same quality of attention to any activity that we are engaged in throughout the day.
Tip 5 - Mindful Eating
So often we eat without awareness. Often only thinking about our next mouthful. We might overeat because of this habit of wanting more and feeling that we don’t have enough or as a way of distracting ourselves from pain or unhappiness. Quite often when we eat, we eat our thoughts and not our food. Mindful eating is a way of slowing down and appreciating each mouthful. It is a way of really savouring our food. Eating mindfully means bringing all our senses to the experience of eating. Begin by looking deeply at the food, exploring the shape, colour and patterns. We might then smell the food, experiencing the different fragrances. With one mouthful at a time, we can take our time to finally taste the food. We sense the textures and flavours: chewing slowly and perhaps setting down our knife and fork between mouthfuls. People often report that they eat less and that they actually taste their food for the first time. This practice can be done with a whole meal, a few mouthfuls or even with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Use it as it fits with your lifestyle. It can be shared with your children in a light-hearted way. Finding ways of describing different tastes or textures of food. We can use flavoured chocolate and ask our children to guess the flavour, encouraging them to close their eyes and really focus on is happening inside their mouths as they explore these sensations.
Tip 6 - 3 Good Things Practice
Research has shown that our negative thoughts and events are like Velcro to our brains and positive ones like Teflon. To make our positive thoughts and events more implicit, we have to turn them into positive experiences. We can do this by focusing on them more, taking a moment just to realise that that was a great conversation, smile, meal, view, etc. Instead of just letting these moments of positivity pass by with little attention or appreciation, the 3 Good Things Practice gives the individual the space to acknowledge and build up these daily experiences.
At the end of each day we can reflect on 3 things that made us happy, that we can be grateful for. We write them down and for each one we say why we are grateful and how it made us feel. It is helpful to have a little book that can then become your gratitude journal.
Even when we are experiencing very difficult times, there are still moments in the day that we can be grateful for. For children, this practice is wonderful. We might use a gratitude jar where we add to it, every time we notice something that makes us smile or makes us feel safe and happy. Children can write these on post-it and pop them in the jar. Parents might add to the jar when they notice something funny or kind that their child does and then at the end of the week explore the content of the jar together.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention with gentleness, curiosity and acceptance. It helps us live more fully in the present moment. This means paying deliberate attention to what is happening in our bodies, and to what we are doing, feeling and thinking, without judging or trying to change our experience. Mindfulness incorporates mindful breathing, bodyscan practices, mindful eating and mindful movement.
By exploring these practices we begin to observe our thoughts as they arise moment by moment without judgement. Allowing thoughts to come and go we can come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings are transient. We are more than our thoughts. Through the practice of mindfulness we come to realise that we have a choice about whether to act on our thoughts or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress take hold in our lives we can observe our thoughts with friendly curiosity and allow them to pass. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.
Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and well-being. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to- day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular mediators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital, memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster.
Mindfulness is the capacity to be fully with ourselves from one moment to the next and to be available for life as it unfolds in this particular moment. Mindfulness is not about trying to get somewhere; rather it is about recognising what is already here and giving ourselves the space to be where we are and as we are.
Despite the proven benefits, however, many people are still a little wary when they hear the word meditation. Before embarking on a Mindfulness course it is important to dispel some of the myths:
Mindfulness is the capacity to be fully with ourselves from one moment to the next and to be available for life as it unfolds in this particular moment. Mindfulness is not about trying to get somewhere; rather it is about recognising what is already here and giving ourselves the space to be where we are and as we are. Mindfulness is a way of showing up in a real way for our partners, children, families and friends. Never before has there been such a need for parents to be able to cultivate this kind of presence for their families.
Covid19 is taking parenting to a whole new level where parents have become a one stop shop, for their children. Overnight they have become teachers, friends, counsellors, entertainment managers, conflict resolution mediators. All this whilst managing their own workload from home or managing the needs and the dynamics of a family suddenly spending every day in the same space. We might be fortunate enough to live somewhere where there is space, where there is a garden. Or we might live in confined space with no garden, in a city where outdoor green spaces are limited. Our living situations can add to or ease our tension at this time. How do we integrate such huge change to our homelives? Just as there is no manual when we give birth to our children to guide us on how to parent, there is no guidebook to help us to navigate our way through these days of pandemic. What we do have however is our own ability to be present and authentic.
As a parent our role is to provide safety and security. We are the environment in which our children grow but never has this environment been so shaken as it has been by the covet-19 pandemic. What we can do right now is to take care of this environment by taking care of ourselves. There are many wonderful resources offering tips and advice on how to structure your child’s day, how to make learning fun, invite creativity, exercise, have down time etc. And yet the biggest resource that might be becoming depleted is you. Often this is the resource that is taken for granted and neglected. As parents we feel that we have to keep going, keep up a brave face, be positive, come up with amazing fun and creative ideas on a daily basis. This is just not sustainable. Little by little anxiety will build and we will become exhausted. There is enough to be worried about without adding to it with unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our children. It is important that we begin each day by cutting ourselves a lot of slack. Many parents are feeling the pressure and berating themselves for losing patience, losing structure and losing hope.
Our children feed off our anxiety and reactivity and we feed off theirs, such is the feedback loop that exists between parent and child. They also feed off our calmness, our humour, our authenticity and our understanding. Whilst we have no control over what is happening on a global scale, we do have some power in how we make our children feel. It is not with words but with our own modelling of authenticity. It is not about being perfect and positive and upbeat. If we fall apart a little, we can acknowledge it and then find healthy ways to take care of our anger, sadness or anxiety. If our children see us doing this they will learn to do this themselves. They will learn that it’s ok to feel whatever they are feeling. The easing of these difficult emotions comes in the space that we give to our children – we provide a relational container where they can spill into and where we can provide warmth and comfort.
‘It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it myself’ - Joyce Maynard
We need to first offer this space to ourselves. We can’t will ourselves to be strong. False positivity creates more anxiety and leaves us worn out. There is another way, where we take a step back, let ourselves off the hook, let go of our expectations and see ourselves with eyes of compassion. If we allow ourselves to be sad and offer ourselves kindness and compassion then we will rise stronger. If we deny these feelings, they will shout louder and we will end up feeling even more anxious, angry or sad. Self-Compassion unleashes courage that we didn’t know we had .The more compassion we have for ourselves, the more we have for our families. The more courage we have the more support we can give to our families.
As we learn to take care of difficult emotions we become more spacious and we begin to show up in a different way for our children.
Spending time on yourself in a way that changes your perspective, nourishes you, helps you to handle your own difficult emotions is not selfish or self-indulgent but is a gift to your whole family. If one person in the family begins a mindfulness practice the whole family benefit. Mindfulness is a way of cultivating calm, being with whatever life is presenting us with without falling apart. When parents practise mindfulness, they get a better sense of reality and are less likely to be swept away in a sea of reactivity and emotions. We begin to develop greater flexibility of response and find wiser and more compassionate ways of being in the world.
“Children are educated by what the grown up is and not by his talk“– Carl Jung
Recently, I have been thinking about the ‘in the meanwhile’ garden allotments established by community groups and workers in Belfast. Over the last few years, individuals have used the ‘space in between’ to create something beautiful for the community, coming together to plan, sow, tend and harvest. They grow their food on empty, unused sites. These areas may not be permanent, as they could be earmarked for future development; hence, the name ‘meanwhile gardens.’
I find the liminality of these creations beautiful yet unexpected; ephemeral gardens that enact wondrous possibilities. What struck me was how these projects, although temporary, were able to embrace change even in unexpected circumstances. It got me thinking about our current predicament: What can we create ‘in the meanwhile’ as coronavirus plays out in the world? As we continue to meet online, growing community and connection, can we create something as nourishing in such unexpected and limited circumstances?
With the support of others this is easier for sure, and knowing that we are all in the same boat can help us accept these unprecedented changes in our society. Byron Katie says that wishing for reality to be different is like trying to teach a cat to bark. Wishing for reality to be different is useless; in fact, it is exhausting and takes us away from what we can do in the present moment.
The here and now is the only place where we can strengthen ourselves for what might become. We might have habits of thinking ways out of a situation or methods that offer solace, maybe even a sensible viewpoint. However, the pandemic, now, demands more from us.
For me, it is challenging all that has been useful so far and requiring a kind of surrender. When we surrender to something we fall into it. It is deeper than acceptance and we allow ourselves to move with it. There is a shift in our positioning. We let go of struggle and we begin to experience rather than observe and analyse. There is freedom and spaciousness in surrender. We let go into the many beautiful moments as well as into the more painful ones. We surrender to the help and the support of others and to the realisation that we are all connected and our responsibility for each other within that. With each surrender comes a greater awareness and acceptance, an appreciation and a resolve.
In the fear around our families getting sick, the wellbeing and mental health of our parents, children and siblings, the pressure on our health care workers and key service providers, we can easily overwhelm ourselves. This fear and worrying might develop into a reactivity, altering our minds into a new state of permanence. We must resist this mindset becoming our ‘new normal.’
We can do so by cultivating our presence, not from the worrying and panic of our everyday discourse. We need to find the ability to be with whatever comes over the next few weeks. Whatever happens, we will be able to face the uncertainty with the power of our own presence, as long as we know how to access and practise growing it.
We should not push away or deny our own pain during these turbulent times; instead, we can choose where we place our attention. If we situate our minds with fearful thinking over and over again, then we further exasperate anxieties, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. Instead, we can turn inwards and find ways to grow calmness and stability, becoming more of an anchor for those around us.
We could fill the space ‘in the meanwhile’ with information, not only about coronavirus but all the information and suggestions that come with it. We could carve out some time to strengthen ourselves by coming into stillness, feeling our own breath, and our own bodies. By offering ourselves compassion and kindness, we accept the reality of the situation.
If you would like a space with others to practise this and a little guidance please join the regular Monday and Friday meditations at 7 am. My wish is that it is a space that feels safe, where people can practise together and feel the strength and connection with each other. Please send an email for the Zoom link.
The question I am asked most often when I tell people that I teach mindfulness is ‘What is it exactly?’
There are many interpretations of what mindfulness is. It is difficult if not impossible to define it as it means different things to different people. Many people practise mindfulness and perhaps call it something else – like fishing, swimming, painting, playing sport. When we are ‘in the zone’ whilst engaged in these activities, we are practising mindfulness. We are in the present moment, focused and paying attention to what we are doing without being distracted. The word ‘mindfulness’ is often misused and misunderstood. Some people think mindfulness is about lying down and relaxing. Some people think it is meditation and some people think it is about being calm all the time. And yes, this is all partly true. However mindfulness is much more than these descriptions. It is not something that we do but more a way of being that can bring more calm and more mastery to our lives. It helps us to be present and less carried away by worrying about the future or rehashing the past. It helps us to re-find the joy in life and to be able to be with difficulties without falling apart. Mindfulness does not stop us from being stressed but it helps us to relate to it differently. It helps us to manage it and get perspective. When we practice mindfulness we create more space in our lives which allows us to step out of our habitual reactions and respond to life with more wisdom. One of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definitions of mindfulness is ‘Paying attention to what is happening as it is happening as if your life depended on it which of course it does.’ This emphasises that mindfulness is about being present to what is happening right now because this is where life happens. If we miss this moment we miss out on life. Life doesn’t happen in the past or the future. It only happens in the present moment. When we learn how to come back to the present moment we build up a strength, a stability and a resilience. We begin to thrive rather than survive.
Rick Hanson coined the phrase that the mind is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. When we begin to practise mindfulness we start to redress this negativity bias. We start to savour the positive by being present to it, soaking it up, weaving it into the fabric of who we are and in so doing we turn positive events into positive experiences. We take care of difficult emotions rather than suppress them and we feel more solid and robust.
Mindfulness is also about spending time with yourself and learning a little bit about who that is. getting to know yourself better, recognising your qualities, patterns of behaviour and getting some mastery over your own life and how you live it.
So how do we cultivate this? What do we have to do? Mindfulness practice consists of both formal and informal practices. The formal practices are sitting meditation, the body scan practice and mindful movement. Engaging in any of these practices is an opportunity to rest the mind, to drop out of thinking and into being mode. This is a much more restful place to be and it is where we build our awareness (our mindfulness) This is where we get in touch with our emotions and learn how to manage them. In sitting meditation we might pay attention to the breath and the body or to conditions of happiness that exist in our life, our mindstate or difficult emotions. In the body scan we practise scanning our attention through the body. We begin to relate to our body differently by fostering the attitudes of acceptance and non-judgement. Mindful movement might be a yoga practice or some kind of gentle exercise. Again the practice of coming into the body allows us to access ‘being mode’ and frees us from the endless flow of thoughts and overthinking.
The informal practices are walking, eating, and basically any other activity that we can bring our attention to. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. We can make drinking a cup of tea a mindfulness practice by taking the time to savour it and engage our senses, to notice our breathing and feel our bodies. We can make very mundane chores into mindfulness practices. Washing the dishes can become a mindfulness practice when we bring our full attention to it and become aware of the sound, smells and textures. We notice the temperature of the water, the colours, the patterns of food, the sound of the scrubber as we wash the dishes. Rather than it being an unpleasant chore we can use it as an opportunity to practise mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice and as with any practice it requires a gentle, patient persistence. If we bring these three qualities to our mindfulness practice we will begin to see great benefits and our life will transform.
“If we miss out on this present moment we miss our appointment with life and that is very serious.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Being a parent is one of the most challenging, rewarding, nourishing and depleting roles that we can step into. I often describe my own experience of childbirth as ‘The Agony and The Ecstasy’. Parenthood often continues in a similar vein, a swinging pendulum between joy and worry, wavering between different extremes. The times of stability and ease are dependent on the fragility of our life circumstances; the health and wellness of ourselves and our children and our faltering navigation through the frequently testing stages of growing up.
Within all of this we are expected to adapt and to know how to meet the needs of our children intuitively, with grace and an ever accepting and understanding heart. How wonderful we would be as mothers if we could realise this state of sainthood on a daily basis.
As a mother myself (of two now adult children,) I have lived through the various stages and challenges that life has presented, sometimes with grace but more often with the familiar nagging fears and questions: ‘Am I doing this right?’ and ‘Am I enough?’
When I experienced a traumatic event in my own life when my children where only 2 and 5 years old, I moved into automatic pilot. I was determined to prove that I was able to do all that needed to be done and more. My normal routine after finishing a very full and stressful day at work was something akin to a military operation. It often involved a series of pickups, drop offs, shopping, cooking, washing, cleaning, tidying, answering emails, following up on phone calls, organising childcare for the following day and more pickups and drop offs, making lunches, bathing my children, playing with them, reading stories, tucking them into bed, packing bags and preparing my own work for the following day. I mostly fell into bed exhausted and repeated the same the next day. Alongside this I was exercising excessively, not eating well and not achieving any kind of balance in my life
I lived like this for a couple of years, always striving, pushing myself, trying to fit more into my day, trying to improve myself and be sure that my children had all that they needed. As a single parent I felt that I had to carry all the worries and resolve issues on my own, and I managed quite successfully until a friend who was obviously baffled by my frantic striving asked me one day, ‘Veronica, what are you trying to prove exactly?’ Something gave way. I hit a wall. And fell apart a little. I realised that I was probably going to burn out if I didn’t slow down. By slowing down I started to get a sense of what was really going on for me for the first time and I took stock. I began to really see my children and to realise that all my frenetic ‘doing’ was creating a distance and that in my busyness I was not making time to simply ‘be’ with my children. In fact, I was missing out on my life and my children’s lives. I was living constantly into the future and at my worst times reliving and rehashing the past to painful effect.
Mindfulness had been a practice that I had dipped my toe into a little but had been too busy to embrace. I thought I didn’t have time to take it on, not realising that practising mindfulness would actually create more space and ease in my life.
I slowly began to develop a very simple mindfulness practice where I would meditate most mornings for maybe 10 or 20 minutes. My children joined me some mornings and we just enjoyed sitting together in silence. Sometimes I would guide a mediation, sometimes we would count our breaths, sometimes we would pick 3 people we were grateful for and send them kind wishes. I brought mindfulness into my everyday life and slowed down. I appreciated the very simple things like eating together as a family, walking, playing in the garden, noticing the very ordinary and taking pleasure in it. I started to have more of an insight into the lives of my children. I entered into their worlds and started to feel happier, more fulfilled and nourished by life. Through the practice of mindfulness I got to understand myself and my children in a much deeper way and for that I am truly grateful.
It is this experience as a parent and also as a teacher and mindfulness facilitator for children and adults that has inspired me to create this Mindful Parenting Course. It draws on my own personal experience and my professional experience as a teacher and focuses on the needs of the parent and the child.
Originally written for Mums NI. Please click here to check out their website.