The concept of mindfulness is pretty straightforward. To paraphrase Jon Kabat-Zinn, it's about paying attention to the present, on purpose, without judgment. That might seem pretty easy, but when you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that it's no easy task.
In a world filled with screens and phones and distractions at every turn, paying attention can be challenging, to say the least. The reality is that most of us just aren't good at focusing on anything for more than a few minutes. Even when we do slow down long enough to do one thing at a time, our minds are often elsewhere, worrying about something that's already happened or thinking about the next thing we need to work on. Often, we're berating ourselves (or someone else) for doing something wrong or congratulating ourselves for finally getting it right. Either way, we don't often have the experience of just being in the moment, paying attention to whatever is happening, not trying to change anything.
What greater gift could we possibly give to our children than our presence, our full acceptance of them, whoever they are, whatever they bring? We all know what those moments of mindful connection feel like; we are immersed in the present, in the experience of relationship. We're full of love for our children, and we feel like good parents. It's easier to remain mindful when we are doing something fun and interesting together; it's much harder when someone (or everyone!) is feeling angry, frustrated, or bored. Yet that's precisely when our children need to know that we love them, and that we value our relationship with them.
Like most parents, I know that I love my daughters no matter what happens. Even if you were to pull me aside in the middle of a double tantrum (when I'm often hiding in the kitchen, trying my best not to bite their little heads off), I'd still be able to acknowledge my love for them. Yet I know that I don't always communicate that well. I snap at my daughters when I'm frustrated, I'm terse with them, I'm distracted by my iPhone, my to-do list, what I'm going to make for dinner.
I take solace in one of the teachings of mindfulness meditation; each moment that I become aware of how distracted I am and the ways in which I am judging myself and my kids is an opportunity to make a different choice, to re-engage with the present moment, with acceptance. Each moment is a new opportunity for me to be a different parent, the kind of parent I want to be.
So, what specifically does mindful parenting look like, beyond paying attention to your kids? I'm still figuring it out, and here is one definition I like. In their article on mindful parenting, Duncan, Coatsworth and Greenberg outlined five aspects of mindful parenting: listening with full attention, nonjudgmental acceptance of self and child, emotional awareness of self and child, self-regulation in the parenting relationship and compassion for self and child.
Basically, mindful parenting is about listening to your kids, paying attention to how everyone is feeling, regulating your own emotions (i.e., staying calm even when you want to scream your head off, lock both kids in the closet, and shove a chocolate bar down your throat), and accepting all of it with compassion for everyone involved. Easy, right?
I don't know about you, but I'm no Buddha Mommy. I have a hard time being present all the time; I find myself wanting to check Facebook or Twitter. I don't like it when my kids are sad, I want them to feel better, and I want to make them feel better, which is pretty much the opposite of full acceptance. And even though I'm pretty good at apologizing to my girls after I snap them, and talking to them about what happened, I'm definitely not compassionate towards myself. I beat myself up about for the rest of the day. The girls are young, I tell myself, I should be more patient and calmer, I should be a better mother.
I'm tempted to tell you that I am, actually, terrible at this whole mindful parenting thing. But let's review the definition of mindfulness: paying attention to the present, on purpose, without judgment. Without judgment. So I keep working on it, putting away my iPhone, redirecting my attention to my girls, trying to accept whatever happens. Oh, and I keep meditating. More on that next time.