There was a moment, just after President Obama was sworn into the office earlier this week, that I’ve been returning to in my thoughts relentlessly. He turned amidst the regal archway of The Capital and stopped. His accompanying family and tribe of lawmakers waited. He said something like, “I want to take a look one more time.” And then he looked back upon The Mall and seemed to take it all in. A few seconds, maybe 1/2 a minute or so. Not long, no, but the moment seemed to take up enormous space. Quietly, eyes wide open, he looked out to the millions that had come to celebrate and bear witness to his honor and his responsibility. Instead of looking at him, my eyes migrated to his daughter, Malia. I saw her watching.
It may have been mindfulness.
It’s of course never clear to an outsider who is mindful or not. Thinking and spending energy to be more present is a passtime that I was introduced to as a medical student because of the work of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn. I use lessons from his work in my personal and professional life on a daily basis. Therefore, it was a sincere joy last night to sit amidst 1000 other parents and hear Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wife Myla talk about, “Mindful Parenting.” I was surrounded by my husband and friends, many colleagues and pediatricians, and I was lucky enough to sit near parents of my patients. It was community. To me it felt like a needed touchstone and a hearty reminder of how nicely being mindful fits into a busy, reflective, hectic, and imperfect life.
5 Lessons From Kabat-Zinns On Mindful Parenting:
- Mindfulness is not the antithesis of anything. There is no single ill or evil that impedes it. In fact, the last question on the night from the audience begged The Kabat-Zinns to detail the biggest obstacle to mindfulness. They couldn’t answer it really. All this, precisely because mindfulness in its simplicity is openness, compassion, and love. At the opening of the talk, Jon helped us recognize the work that it took to bring us there, amidst the heavy Thursday raindrops, rush hour traffic, busy workweeks, needy toddlers or teens at home, and the truth that there was potentially something else we really should be doing. He reminded us all that is was LOVE that had brought us together to listen to ideas about mindful parenting. This we all share. This is why mindfulness is possible for everyone at every time in their life. Each new moment is evolving into something entirely new.
- At one point, Dr Kabat-Zinn looked down at his watch. At first glance it appeared he was tracking the timing of his talk and then he burst out, “If you check your watch, it’s now again.” A hilarious reminder that each and every moment that unfolds is always now. We have a chance to bear witness to time indefinitely. We are offered up the opportunity to be mindful, open, and present with an infinite number of “do-overs.” Oh, wow–it’s now again. Myla furthered this saying, “Every moment is the possibility of a new beginning.” Every single moment is a new chance to be aware.
- Parenting is overwhelming governed by love. Being mindful, ever-present, and always full of love is an impossibility. Suffering is a part of being human whether you’re an adult or child, they reminded. But the potential for seeing the world along side our children, with the backdrop of the sky, is always there. Kabat-Zinn refreshingly stated that we had “live-in teachers” for mindfulness because of our children. Think of the moments each child takes and absorbs in their days. And think how often they usher you into the world differently. Parenting is a privilege and having these teachers around us is true wealth but it’s not necessarily easy. Our children will teach us about mindfulness naturally, but we’ll likely be startled to learn that we think the curriculum is one thing while repeatedly they’ll demonstrate it’s something all together different. Think of it, just when you think you’ve planed the perfect mindful afternoon for a picnic with your child, their experience of it will turn into something new–an afternoon hunt for a lost ball or day to ask for crackers. These teachers really will surprise us.
- Mindfulness is the art of non-doing. There is nothing prescriptive about it—no real “how-to” bullet points to share. Rather, be reminded that our society will not feature this—it isn’t sexy or exciting or easy to market not being productive. Not doing, stretching into a moment’s enormity, is a way to grow into ourselves. And this will serve our children, not only ourselves. When we model mindfulness, not just attempt to enter the moment our children observe, but when we find our own moment, we may be the most helpful. Think of President Obama. Think of his keen daughter watching on as he stopped his gait, turned on his heel, and looked out to the people who elected him to lead. Think of the power we have when we take in, stop judging, and open ourselves up to a moment. Our children, at every age, are watching.
- The Kabat-Zinns reminded us that we can have anger for anyone. Stop being alone in that. Someone 40 days old and someone 40 months or 40 years has the potential to infuriate us. This is steeped in our love. Size and age are irrelevant when it comes to inciting fire. “We save our ire for those we care about the most,” they said. This acknowledgement is essential in parenting. Feeling anger, frustration, deep disappointment, and fire in your heart for those you love the most is human. It may not be forgiveness that we need, but space to see and feel the anger and then find our own way out. Each and every moment will pass and evolve into another.
Mindfulness isn’t just about a loss of distraction. It isn’t as easy as those blog posts from moms who are re-born into a new world without their cell phone. Mindfulness is at its essence far more simple yet far more complex than that. It’s the opportunity we have to grow into the precious moment we are given again and again and again–uniquely, alone, and then entirely alongside our children with the backdrop of the sky. Each day a chance again.
For more on The Kabat-Zinn’s lessons check out Everyday Blessings and Full Catastrophe Living.
Both books I really enjoyed. So glad you got to hear them speak. The mindfulness class I took last winter was such a good reminder of their writing!
What a wonderful post! I sadly missed the talk last night and now I feel less like I missed out completely:). What a beautiful take on what I’m sure was an inspiring talk! Thank you
Joe McCarthy says
Thanks for sharing some of the highlights from the event. “Everyday Blessings”, for me, was a sort of “what to expect [and how to respond] when you’re parenting”. I think it is especially relevant to, and potentially most helpful for, new parents struggling with what often seems like overwhelming demands of caring for an infant or toddler, and copies of the book have been my standard gift to friends and family members who are celebrating the birth of a new child.
The book came out when my children were a bit older, and I remember feeling retrospective regret for not having fully appreciated the moments when they were very young, when I typically unconsciously chose to focus on the feelings of overwhelmedness rather than attend fully to the unique opportunities for being fully present with wonderful and fast growing human beings. The book helped me understand that I can make more conscious choices on what I attend to.
I was grateful for this observation in your summary:
“Parenting is a privilege and having these teachers around us is true wealth but it’s not necessarily easy. Our children will teach us about mindfulness naturally, but we’ll likely be startled to learn that we think the curriculum is one thing while repeatedly they’ll demonstrate it’s something all together different.”
My children are now grown, but I’m now a senior lecturer at a university, and often [again] feeling overwhelmed with all the things [I believe] I need to do in order to effectively promote the growth of my students. This observation helps me think about whether and how I can apply mindful parenting techniques to develop more mindful teaching techniques.
And reflecting on applying insights in the reverse direction, one of the most inspiring articles I’ve read about mindful teaching – or student-centered learning – was by psychologist Carl Rogers, and I believe his emphasis on transparency or congruence, acceptance and deep empathic understanding would likewise apply to mindful parenting (“child-centered parenting”)? FWIW, here’s a link to his 1969 essay on “Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning”:
If you are interested in buying the DVD live recording of the event you can do so at http://www.pesi.com. It was an amazing and centering discussion. Thank you Wendy Sue for highlighting it in your blog.
Love this: Feeling anger, frustration, deep disappointment, and fire in your heart for those you love the most is human. It may not be forgiveness that we need, but space to see and feel the anger and then find our own way out. Each and every moment will pass and evolve into another.
Sue Barnard says
Wow. I really appreciate this article, especially the eye opener about anger. I so often feel disappointed in myself when I have those emotions toward the child I am “supposed to love.” To realize that it is part and parcel of the love is a huge relief. I saw this interview with JKZ which was equally as powerful. Here is the link if you’re interested! https://www.psychalive.org/2013/01/video-interview-with-mindfulness-expert-dr-jon-kabat-zinn/
Patti Ashley says
Hi Wendy: Great to find you on-line. Love the article, and would love to share my new book with you, that has a conclusion about mindful parenting in it. https://tinyurl.com/TooGoodMotherSellsheet
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thank you, Patti!