How can mindfulness help parents at this time of pandemic? April 2020
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.