How you think affects everything you do. I have written here before about how the mind affects our parenting and our world outlook. If we accept that the mind has a role to play in determining one’s actions, then getting in touch with the mind might just be the key to develping greater sensitivity in our parenting and, consequently, connection with our children.
I used to say, “I wish I could be more patient with my children.” People would reply, “oh but you are patient. Don’t be so hard on yourself!” I wondered, what do I actually mean when I say I want to be more patient? After reflection, I have come to understand that what I really want is to have a greater understanding of how my mind leads me into actions that lead me into disconnection. How can I resist becoming wrapped up in the thoughts (and obeying their commands) when I face parenting struggles?
Yesterday evening: we walk through the door, and suddenly Aidan is screaming, Eilidh is screaming, Iona is screaming. Aidan wants to get his hands into a drawer where Eilidh is keeping her ‘special things;’ Eilidh is screaming because she wants him to stay out; Iona is screaming because she can’t stand their screaming and wants them to stop! It is very difficult to remain centred when three people are screaming, all at the same time. My thoughts are telling me that this noise level is too much, what on earth could they be shouting about, and why does Iona have to get involved when the altercation is nothing to do with her? I know that everyone is tired and hungry, and after yelling at them all to “BE QUIET! STOP SCREAMING!” (and no, I don’t miss the irony) I go into the kitchen to take a deep breath and consider what to do next. Familiar? (please say yes!)
In meditation, we often choose a quiet, calm place for sitting and watching our thoughts. We close out all external stimuli to enable us to bring the mind to single point of focus. We cultivate an awareness of our external witness, and we watch our thoughts without being taken away by them. When we become wrapped up in thoughts, we gently return the mind to its focus. In Yoga class we have usually practised an hour’s worth of physical movements (asana) before sitting to meditate, and the meditation is normally followed by supine guided relaxation. Doesn’t it all sound wonderful?
Parenting is nothing like this!
Parenting is noisy, busy, fully engaged sensory overload. Parenting is a nearly-constant GIVE GIVE GIVE. Parents of young children rarely sit cross-legged on the floor (unless it is to help build a train or put together a puzzle); we rarely have time to sit alone in a quiet space (not even the bathroom is off-limits); and when we have time to listen to our thoughts it’s often a welcome tonic– finally, a chance to think without interruption!
Where listening to our thoughts and following through on their demands can be problematic is in situations like the one I described above– where we feel under pressure to respond to a stressful situation; where we are at loggerheads with our children; where we must step in and teach our children about acceptable behaviour; where we are called to restore peace in a time of conflict. In my thoughts I saw myself yelling “BE QUIET” at the children (not my most stellar parenting moment) rather than listening attentively to them and attempting to understand their needs.
There is a split-second, hair’s breadth of a moment between stimulus and reaction. My children are screaming in triplicate and in my mind’s eye I see myself shouting, prizing the little ones apart and stomping into the other room to tell Iona to stay out of it. This visualisation is incredibly short and it has taken me many years to see the effect such moments have on me. In this moment I am planning what I am going to do. The mind has a tremendous ability to plan and work out problems. After noticing that I have these image-heavy planning thoughts I decided to try to harness the mind’s ability to plan and attempted to revise the plan. On occasion I have taken the visualisation of myself as angry-parent, allowed it to play out, and then inserted a different scene: imaging myself behaving in the way that I know I will later wish I had acted.
In the simultaneous-screaming furore of yesterday, I yelled, then retreated to the kitchen to reassess my response. I imagined myself dealing with one child at a time, listening more than talking, apologising for my outburst…. This is what I proceeded to do, and the actual scene that played out ended in a hug, apologies on all sides and deeper connection between my children and me. It felt like a miracle.
Some might say that there is no space between thought and action. If you would like to explore the idea that there are spaces where we might not normally see them– these invisible pauses in which we can make a decision that could affect our day-to-day lives in extraordinary ways– consider trying this practice as often as you can. You don’t need to be sitting or standing in any particular way. It helps if you aren’t slouching, but you could do it lying down. It’s the perfect thing to do while you are breastfeeding your baby, walking to school to collect the children, sitting in traffic (but do maintain awareness of your surroundings!), waiting for the kettle to boil, watching the children splash in the bath, etc. You get the picture– try it anywhere! Simply watch your inhalation and exhalation. Sounds boring, perhaps, and maybe overly simple… but as you watch your breath you may find that it slows down… and over time you may begin to notice pauses that you never knew were there. It only takes a moment: feel no need to do it for a prescribed length of time, but do give yourself a chance to settle into it and exprience tha natural breath as it moves through your body.
In Yoga we teach that the breath has four parts: inhalation, pause when the lungs are full, exhalation, pause when the lungs are empty. Like the pause before action in parenting, the pauses between the inhale and exhale are momentary. But in Yoga, we strategically lengthen them to calm the mind and give ourselves space. I invite you try getting in touch with the brief pauses in your life, harness the power of your mind to discover the multitude of choices you could make in that pause and reap the rewards of being more in control of yourself and how you react to your thoughts.
I would love to hear your feedback on this and all of my posts!
Photo credit: Vulture Peak by Bpilgrim, via Wikimedia Commons.