Finding Emotional Stability in a Time of Economic Instability

05/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Have you ever had a funny feeling that something's not right, but you can't figure out what it is? Maybe it's a tight feeling in your chest, or a sinking feeling in your stomach. These gut feelings, or intuitions, tend to be a fairly reliable indication that there is something going on that merits attention. Mindfulness meditation is a time-tested way to bring awareness to things that we often ignore and lay the groundwork for inner stability eespecially when, from the outside, things don't seem stable at all.

Steve, the parent of two of my students, had one of those funny feelings a year or so ago. He is the son of a corporate accountant at a big auto company and as a boy he would watch his father go to work and he would want to go with him. Steve's father told him that his job was to go to school and do well. If Steve did that, his father said, he would get everything he wanted. So the boy went to school where he learned math, science, English and history. The majority of Steve's learning was by memorization or computation and applied in a linear, logical way. Steve was good at it. His teachers told him if he continued to work hard and do well at school he would succeed. So he worked hard and he did well. The automobile industry had provided a good standard of living and his parents told Steve he could do well there. It was a healthy sector of the economy and had been booming since just after World War II. If any career was a sure thing in the 1970s, it was a degree in accounting, and if any industry was a sure thing, it was manufacturing -- especially automobiles. So Steve followed in his father's footsteps and when he graduated from college he got a job in the corporate accounting office of a big automobile company.

Steve's father retired after a long career with a gold watch, health insurance and a pension. Steve had no reason to think this wouldn't happen to him if he worked hard and played by the rules. Steve got married and had a couple of kids. His wife Karen stayed home to raise them while he went to work.

For quite awhile everything went according to plan.

Steve provided his wife and kids with vacations, computers, television sets, bikes and stereos, as well as expensive lessons and enrichment activities like karate, dance, private music lessons, private sports coaches, and tutors. Steve was a reliable provider, proud of his accomplishment, and thought his struggles were over. But then some things happened in the American economy that Steve had not anticipated. The Japanese auto industry grew exponentially and made it harder for American companies to sell their cars and trucks. They made it so hard that American companies started to contract. Eventually, Steve lost his job. With that he lost his pension and his family's health insurance. Steve started looking for a new job immediately but there were no openings in his field. Meanwhile, his daughter began to struggle at school, his son began to struggle emotionally and Steve was unable to afford the educational and psychological support he felt necessary to help Amanda and Josh cope with their changing life circumstances.

Steve talked to Karen about getting a job but she had not trained for anything. She, too, had believed the conventional wisdom and now it seemed as if their lives were spinning out of control. Steve was closing in on 50 years old and felt misled by his parents' generation. Everything they had told him about planning and job security had turned out not to be true and now he and Karen were ill equipped for the uncertainty ahead. They weren't alone. Many of Steve's colleagues were in exactly the same position. If Steve and Karen were to survive economically and look after their family, they would have to learn to think in a new way. They weren't sure if they'd be able to reinvent themselves, but they knew one thing: they did not want Amanda and Josh to fall into the same economic trap that they, and many of their contemporaries, had fallen into.

Steve and his family's journey was about more than economic security: Steve had changed in a fundamental way. He realized that finding another job was secondary to the real issues facing them. He was not prepared to navigate the new professional paradigm and, for the first time in his life, Steve understood that emotional stability was more fundamental to happiness than economic stability.

That's when Steve began to pay attention to his intuition. Even though the entirety of his educational and professional development had been spent honing the analytical skills that were choreographed in the left-hemisphere of his brain, he had a gut feeling that the solution to this problem would require a different approach. Steve remembered a quote from Jonas Salk, the scientist who developed a vaccine for polio:

"Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next."

With nothing left to lose economically, but a whole lot to lose emotionally, he decided it was time to give the intuitive right-hemisphere of his brain a try.

The brain is physically divided, right down the middle, into two hemispheres the left and the right. The hemispheres are interconnected via an intricate and fluid tapestry of firing neurons, but still, each hemisphere is primarily responsible for processing a certain type of information. The left-hemisphere is primarily responsible for language, math and logic and the right-hemisphere is primarily responsible for spatial abilities, face recognition, and emotional understanding. The left hemisphere emphasizes linear processing while the right-hemisphere emphasizes holistic processing. Here are a few more examples.

• Left-hemisphere sequential processing - right-hemisphere random processing
• Left-hemisphere logical - right-hemisphere intuitive
• Left-hemisphere verbal - right hemisphere nonverbal

A general, and oversimplified, rule of thumb is that left-hemisphere processes are largely rational processes -- for instance, linear thinking, memorization, and computation -- while right-hemisphere processes are largely intuitive processes -- for instance, compassion, creativity, pattern recognition, and emotional intelligence. Both hemispheres have a role in everything we say and do, but up until quite recently, our educational system was geared toward the development of left-hemisphere, or more linear and analytic processes, often to the detriment of the development of right hemisphere, or more holistic and intuitive, processes. Public education's emphasis on left-hemisphere processes, as exemplified by the importance schools place on standardized test scores, served Steve's dad well, and even Steve, in the workaday world as it existed for decades. But the workaday world has changed now, and an educational approach that emphasizes predominantly left-hemisphere processes at the expense of predominantly right-hemisphere ones, no longer serves Steve's family or anyone else for that matter. The professional paradigm in the new global economy has shifted away from one where abilities in analysis and computation are the greatest predictor of professional success.

This paradigm shift has taken a toll on Steve and his family. With Steve out of work and Karen in the job market for the first time since their children were born, they need not only to make money but also to make sense of how their lives have changed. When Steve lost his job, his and Karen's primary concern was their kids -- more than anything else, they wanted to insulate Amanda and Josh from the all too real worry and stress that they were experiencing. But despite their parents' best efforts, Amanda and Josh suffered anyway. The entire family felt as if they had lost their bearings and Steve worried that the emotions triggered by his professional crisis clouded his perspective and he could no longer see the big picture clearly. For Steve, practicing mindful awareness was an offer of hope.

The Steve, Karen, Amanda and Josh that I write about in this post are not a real-life family but a composite of many families I have worked with over the past year. Faced with the stress and strain of life in the 21st century, people are hurting and looking for a quick-fix that will not only make their children happy and healthy, but restore a sense of balance in their suddenly tumultuous lives. Right up front I want to be clear that mindful awareness training is not a magic wand that parents can waive and poof (!) -- their kids will be happy and successful. But I will go out on a limb to say that there is one quality that comes about as close to magic as you can get; and it can be discovered and refined by practicing mindfulness. That quality is clear seeing because life tends to be far more difficult than it need be when we don't see our experience clearly. The road toward genuine and lasting psychological freedom starts by becoming clear about what actually is happening in our lives and controlling our response to what we see. Breath awareness is the foundational practice for teaching children to clearly see inner- and outer- experience as it happens, without reacting to it emotionally, or in an automatic or habitual way.

A new paradigm for children and families is within reach by connecting the wisdom derived from a more reflective and introspective way of being with the insights provided by education, psychology and neuroscience. To create this paradigm we:

• Look at contemporary parenting & educational styles to see what's working and what's not working;
• Look back at the traditional ways of parenting and teaching that have been discarded and identify what of value has been lost and what our kids today are missing:
• Look to psychology and neuroscience to learn how new ways of teaching affect the brain and nervous system; and
• Integrate the knowledge gleaned from these inquiries into already refined and tested models of mental training (mindful awareness or Qi Gong, for example) that focus on the integration of inner and outer life experience.

Some ask why, with all the other psychological, religious, and social resources available to parents and teachers, why at a time when parents are referred to as "helicopter" parents because they hover over their children's every move, do the adherents of our movement to bring mindful awareness to families believe that we are ignoring the inner lives of children and in some way compromising their ability to reach their full potential?

The answer is simple: many children's lives are seriously out-of-balance long before they reach adulthood and they needn't be. So let's take a deep breath, a clear look both backward and forward, and help families find emotional stability in this time of economic instability.

For more about mindful awareness for children and families visit Mindful Mom and join the InnerKids online community.