THE BLOG

Mindful Parenting: The Most Important Thing

05/16/2014 04:40 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014
  • Shauna Shapiro Professor and Author of 'Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits & Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child'

"The most important thing is to remember the most important thing." -- Suzuki Roshi

We so easily forget what is most important. We're often living our lives on autopilot, going through the motions, without truly knowing why we're doing what we're doing. Mindfulness reminds us of what we deeply care about, anchoring us in the present moment, calling our attention back to our intention, helping us reset the compass of our hearts over and over again.

Recently, I was teaching in Europe and had been away from my 8-year-old son, Jackson, for 10 days. I missed him badly, and on the plane ride home, I began feeling guilty for being gone for so long. I made a clear intention to create a special day where he and I could reconnect.

And then that special day was here, a beautiful Saturday morning: I decided we would spend the day together at Muir Beach. As I packed up our beach gear, I became caught up in the speed of my agenda. Jackson was in a much slower space, and it took quite a while to get him dressed, fed and out the door. Finally, we were off and on our way to have fun and connect.

As we walked through our front yard, Jackson paused to look at a trail of ants. "Come on, sweetheart, it's time to go to the beach," I said, with a hint of impatience in my voice. However, he was already completely absorbed by the ants and without glancing up said, "Mom, come over here -- look!" I could feel a subtle but growing contraction in my body. I paused a moment, noticing these uncomfortable sensations. Luckily, I had just returned from teaching mindfulness, so some of the lessons were still fresh in my being. As I scanned my body, I breathed and reflected: "What is my intention? Oh yeah, I want to have quality time with my son, let him know that I am here now and that I missed him." We didn't actually need to be anywhere at any specific time, not even the beach. Could I simply relax my agenda and remember what was truly important -- Jackson, here, now, in this moment, wanting to show me the ants?

He continued to focus his full attention on the ants. I walked over to where he was squatting, sat down in the sunshine next to him and began to watch. He scooted closer and leaned into me, the sun warm on my back. A tear came to my eye as I felt the preciousness of the moment and how close I had been to missing it. This was the connection I wanted all along: my little boy, resting against my body, both of us present, sharing this moment of mindfulness together. This was the most important thing.

Mindfulness has been my saving grace as a parent, holding me in its loving arms, helping me find my way back to my heart over and over again. It reminds me moment by moment that the greatest gift I have to offer is my presence.

Mindfulness is a loving presence. In fact, the word mindfulness could have just as easily been translated as heartfulness: the words for mind and heart are interchangeable in Asian languages. Western thought has mistakenly led us to believe that we have to be stressed or vigilant to focus our attention. However, mindfulness teaches us that a "relaxed alertness" is possible. We can be relaxed, kind, spacious and have clear, laser-like attention. Mindfulness invites an exquisite balance between alertness and ease, precision and relaxation. Mindfulness is embodied and not simply about mental training; it's a way of being, of inhabiting life fully, requiring us to connect with our emotions and bodies. It invites true presence and love, which is what our children want most from us. This is what life wants most from us. All we have to do is relax into being.

Three Elements of Mindfulness
Mindfulness calls for attention but is so much more. It invites us to reflect on why we're paying attention, our intention and to notice how we're paying attention, our attitude.

Intention, Attention, Attitude (IAA)

Intention is simply knowing why we're doing what we're doing. Our intentions help motivate us, reminding us of what is truly important, as in my story above. Intentions ask, "What are my deepest hopes, desires and aspirations?" We listen for the answers with an open heart, without striving to make anything happen or get anywhere. As Jack Kornfield says, "Intention is a direction, not a destination," and it simply allows us to set the compass of our hearts.

Attention is learning to pay attention in the present moment, instead of being hijacked by fears about our futures or regrets about our past. It's incredibly healing to actually be where you are. You are sitting here reading this article; at least your body is... where is your mind? How many times has it wandered off, how many sentences have you read and re-read? When our minds wander aimlessly, those are a lot of precious moments we miss, especially ones with our children! Mindfulness is about reclaiming our lives, waking up to each moment and living it fully.

Attitude refers to how we pay attention and the quality of our attention. It's the decision to infuse our attention with kindness, openness, curiosity. It incorporates a deep allowing of what is and a commitment to see clearly, without judging or controlling. Mindfulness welcomes all of our experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly. We invite it into a huge pot of awareness, that holds and embraces whatever is arising, be it fear, confusion, loneliness, doubt... and gently cooks it so it becomes more digestible.

For example, in the story with Jackson, when I noticed my impatience arising, how I noticed it determined what happened in the next moment. If my attitude had been judgmental and shaming or, "You are such a bad mother, why are you always so impatient, you're ruining your day with Jackson," I could have become stuck in self-shame and criticism. This sort of self-condemnation requires a lot of energy and would likely prevent me from seeing clearly what was truly needed in the moment: to simply pause and be with Jackson.

Mindfulness is one of our most helpful companions as parents. When we feel overwhelmed and confused, mindfulness helps us find our way again. As Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn remind us, "Ultimately, mindful parenting is about seeing our children clearly and listening to and trusting our own hearts."

Parenting is a calling: an opportunity where we can be drawn through the power of love to continue stretching and growing as people. When we practice mindfulness, it supports us in remembering who we truly are and what is most important, as it did in the story above with me and my son. This way of being shifts our brain circuits toward empathy, resilience and a felt sense of our own wisdom, so we in turn can help raise happy, healthy, emotionally intelligent children.

The miracle of mindfulness is that it's always already here within us. We don't have to make it happen (or try really hard to be good or perfect) to access it. We simply need to relax more fully into the natural wisdom and presence that exists at the core of who we are. As parents, there's an innate wisdom we can trust that's always here to guide us. We are never alone: Mindfulness, itself, is a benevolent parent that helps guide us back to our true nature, so we can offer our best and wisest hearts to our own children.