Embracing What Truly Matters
An acquaintance once confessed that she knew her housekeeping was out of control when her son said to her, “I feel like you don’t want it to look like I live here.” Though she would swear her family was the most important thing to her, she realized her actions didn’t match her words.
Whether it is housekeeping, advancing our careers, furthering our education, mommy’s “happy hour,” or our church obligations, we need to remember what matters most to us, and make sure our lives reflect that.
One reason we focus on things that are of lesser importance is anxiety. “If I don’t volunteer for the PTA job, people will think I’m not invested in my child’s education.” “If I don’t get an A on this exam, I’m going to feel stupid.” “If my carpet isn’t vacuumed, I’ll feel like a slob.” “I need that glass of wine (or two) or I’m going to lose it!” “Pleasing God means I must be at every church/synogogue/mosque event.”
While we may not say these statements out loud, they are always there in the back of our minds, sometimes whispering, sometimes shouting.
Another reason we focus on things that are of lesser importance is avoidance. Sometimes we simply aren’t enjoying our family members. There are periods in parenting, and in marriage, that are harder than others. Sometimes it’s easier to put together a school fundraiser for 300 than deal with the frustrations of an unhappy child or spouse.
The practice of mindfulness can be a way to deal with both our anxieties and our avoidance issues.
“We get these multiple levels of pain,” said Tulsa therapist Dennis England, LCSW. “Primary pain is the fatigue we feel at the end of the day. We aren’t going to make that go away. Unfortunately, what happens is that we start telling ourselves things like, ‘I’m a bad parent. If I really loved my kids, I wouldn’t feel this way.’”
England says to cope with these feelings we might reach for a glass of wine, or turn on the TV to numb out.
“Secondary pain, or dirty pain, is the pain we feel when we act on our feelings. One glass of wine or one TV show is okay, but if we are losing ourselves in TV or drinking three or four glasses of wine and not interacting with our family, it’s a problem.”
England, who practices Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT, a form of mindfulness-based therapy, says that an important first step is recognizing that life is hard and parenting is hard.
“It’s going to be full of sadness and pain and discomfort, and also full of joy and elation, and comfort.” In our culture, we try to get rid of the bad feelings. But with practice we can learn to “make space” for all our feelings and thoughts: both those that make us comfortable and those that disturb us. “We learn to hold our thoughts a little more lightly. Thinking negatively about my kids or my spouse doesn’t mean anything except that I’m tired,” England explained.
“With mindfulness you realize that thoughts come and go,” she said. “Then you can focus on what really matters to you. What’s important to you. What you want to stand for. You can ask yourself, ‘How would I like to be able to say I handled this?’”
Putting these ideas into practice means stopping the next time you feel the compulsion to say yes to a volunteer opportunity, insist on vacuuming the house instead of taking the kids to the park, or veg in front of Facebook when the rest of the family is in another room, and ask yourself, “What is really important to me? Does this fit?”
You can also be present enough to note if your actions will help you with the problem you have identified. Are you tired? Rest or meditate instead of pushing yourself to the point of irritability. Are you sad? Give yourself time to cry or journal instead of reaching for the carton of Blue Bell. Are you angry at your spouse—again? Decide on a time to discuss the issue instead of volunteering to provide six-dozen cupcakes for your child’s preschool party— again.
“The greatest gift you can give your child is your self. This means that part of your work as a parent is to keep growing in self-knowledge and awareness,” wrote Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in his book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindfulness Parenting. “We only have right now,” he continued. “Let us use it to its best advantage, for our children’s sake, and for our own.”
Here are some additional ideas on mindfulness and parenting from Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindfulness Parenting.
- Try to imagine the world from your child’s point of view, purposefully letting go of your own. Do this every day for at least a few moments to remind you of who this child is and what he or she faces in the world.
- Imagine how you appear and sound from your child’s point of view, i.e., having you as a parent today, in this moment. How might this modify how you carry yourself in your body and in space, how you speak, and what you say? How do you want to relate to your child in this moment?
- Practice seeing your children as perfect just the way they are. See if you can stay mindful of their sovereignty from moment to moment, and work at accepting them as they are when it is hardest for you to do so.
- Be mindful of your expectations of your children and consider whether they are truly in your child’s best interest. Also, be aware of how you communicate those expectations and how they affect your children.
- When you feel lost, or at a loss, remember to stand still and meditate on the whole by bringing your full attention to the situation, to your child, to yourself, to the family. In doing so, you may go beyond thinking, even good thinking, and perceive intuitively, with the whole of your being, what needs to be done.
- Try embodying silent presence. This will grow out of both formal and informal mindfulness practice over time if you attend to how you carry yourself and what you project in body, mind, and speech. Listen carefully.
- Learn to live with tension without losing your own balance.
- Apologize to your child when you have betrayed a trust in even a little way. Apologies are healing.
- Every child is special, and every child has special needs. Hold an image of each child in your heart. Drink in their being, wishing them well.