Principles of Contemplative Parenting, Part Two

Earlier this year I posted on Principles of Contemplative Parenting – and my reflections inspired by them. Thanks to Alaya Preschool for outlining some of these suggested points. Here I share a few more, accompanied by my experiences. After a challenging spell with my boys, these served my life like guideposts, reminding me that even when I feel lost or confused, there is always an intentional perspective that I can bring to any situation or moment.

Mind matters most: how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how the situation turns out. For me, it isn’t just my mental state – but my overall state: whole body, nervous system, heart and soul. A few weeks ago I took my first weekend away from my kids with a few girlfriends. We soaked it hot springs, ate delicious food and hiked in the gorgeous Glenwood Canyon here in Colorado. Upon coming home, I felt truly restored. It wasn’t just that I was relaxed or refreshed; it was that I actually could feel again the essence of who I am most deeply. I was tuned in with myself in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. And when I rejoined my children, I could feel my own state clearly and distinctly as separate from theirs.

This might seem like an obvious need and capacity to some of you reading – but for me, I’d lost something in these past months of parenting. I’d become so spread outwards that I’d lost my capacity to subtly note when my boys’ states were overly and negatively influencing mine. So when my middle son was feeling anxious about the impending start of school and beginning to act out as a result, I too was feeling anxious and getting high strung and ungrounded. When my sons were needing to wrestle and run and jump and join with each other in conflict, I was getting swept right in to that elevated energy. I was losing my sense of balance and ease. I was literally being pulled all over the place and in the process not feeling deeply into myself. The result has been that I’ve not been able to manage difficult family moments with as much patience or skillfulness.

It took a weekend away to realize what had been happening. When I came home and greeted family situations grounded, rested and really feeling my own body and experience, I could respond more in alignment with how I most want (with compassion, kindness, patience and openness). Alternately, if I haven’t been taking time to tune into my own state and attend to my deepest sense of well-being throughout the day, then I’m scattered and unable to tend mindfully to big emotions arising or the sometimes crazy moments of chaos and conflict.

So yes – how we come to a situation has the greatest effect on how a situation turns out. The lesson here for me is to take the time needed to tune in, slow down, and notice how I’m doing (at the deep levels) before I respond to difficult and complex moments. Then, I can set the intention per how I most want to respond and let that guide me.

Keep it light, fun and no big deal, unless it is a big deal. Even then, make sure love comes through (even if it has to be the tough variety). My challenge of late is to choose what is a big deal and what isn’t. Some days it feels like I could be battling all day long setting boundaries and redirecting actions. So where do I really step in and draw big lines? Again, as I mention above, if I’m not careful I can be swept into a million nutty directions with three boys and their friends doing all sorts of things bordering on unsafe or unkind. So I make a practice of choosing my battles. Trying to catch bees with a kitchen towel? Okay. Not the best choice but I’m going to let that one go. Plowing through the neighbor’s flowers during a pretend mountain biking excursion? No way. Let’s make apology cards and buy them a bouquet to leave on their doorstep. Donning helmets and pretending to be bulls fighting via intense headbutts in a pen? Not my favorite pasttime but go for it. Taking a plastic race track, turning it into a whip, and smacking your brother full force across the legs? Oh no. Here comes the big reaction.

We all need boundaries. And yes, keeping it light and fun is the ideal. But there are moments when strong words and bigger energy is also needed. Remembering to let love shine through even in those moments is key – even if it means looping back around after the fact to connect. “We all make mistakes. But there are things we can do to be more careful…”

Children never want us to be unhappy, but they certainly do sometimes get stuck in wanting us to do the things we do when we get mad. Right now, one of my sons seems to relish in pushing my buttons. Ultimately, he needs to push me hard enough so that I give him the containment that he needs in order to release his big feelings. In his confusion, he’ll do anything to get a reaction from me. He will work every angle until he can acheive an emotional release.

The other night just before bedtime, he pulled apart one of my houseplants. He threw his brother’s lego sets. He proceeded to run around the house – engaging me in a push-me, pull-me cat and mouse chase. Nothing I said satisfied him until he finally got to the place of crying while I was holding him. But before he got to this place, he was certainly stuck in wanting to meet me in a place of reactivity and chaos. The doorway to his relaxing, connection and release was somehow rooted in wanting me to do the things I do when I get mad: one of which is hold him tightly.

I’m still working on how to free up this pattern. There are so many layers at work – so many needs and emotions – and also perhaps pure mischief, too. I try to switch up my responses, remembering my ability to be fresh and new with how I’m responding.

“We’re going to try something new” is always an option when you are in a rut with your child. Sometimes I forget that I can indeed try something new. As I’ve written about before – this principle reminds me of the Buddhist notion of “Beginner’s Mind.” I love this definition excerpted from Nithyananda Mission: “By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment.” Yes! “We’re going to try something new.” Such a simple invitation – and reminder of the possibilities available when stuck.

Authentic presence in itself is a complete path of parenting, containing all the wisdom, power and love we will ever need. I love this one. If I’m tuned in with how I’m doing and what I need, then I can bring more authenticity to my parenting journey and my relationships with my children. Sometimes I find myself pushing too hard to get things done, or agreeing to go on excursions that don’t serve my need for quiet introversion. I find myself at the bike park or under the blazing sun with neighborhood kids swirling around me on scooters. I love these moments, of course. But I also find that often I’m churning along, not standing up for some of my deeper needs.

It helps when I can speak clearly about where I’m at. It also helps when I can loop back around and share my experience honestly with my kids. “I was frustrated when…” “When you do that, I feel…” It never lands when I’m in a reactive moment – but it does land when I’m settled again and can be authentic about whatever has transpired and what the impacts were. It requires a bit of extra introspection and taking the time to process how we all engage in a moment together. Remembering to be authentic and honest softens many edges and helps me to relax.

Love is the answer. It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true. I love the truth here. “It doesn’t always feel quiet and sweet, but it always feels true.” Parenting has taught me that love can look a million ways, and it doesn’t always look how I’d imagined. Love can however become a larger container that we all live in, together. Love can offer the cushion of safety that surrounds us, even when we’re not feeling it directly during a difficult moment.

For me, it helps to create space to really notice my children – to really look deeply at them and hold them in an intentional light. Coming back to love, over and over again, is truly the answer. Even when I mess up and grapple with feelings of failure, overwhelm and exasperation, I remember to come back to my experience of love. From there, I find all the insight I need.

As the Alaya teachers and staff share so aptly, “Parenting is a much greater challenge that most people admit (even to themselves). The potential of parenting, in helping us grow, be happy and relax into compassion, is also more profound that we sometimes can see. Parenting is a quick and steep path indeed!”

Thanks to Alaya Preschool teacher Sita Santos for these illustrations (given to my boys earlier this year).

 

 

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Principles of Contemplative Parenting

A note to readers: Hello! It has been awhile since I’ve been posting regularly. As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been busy editing my book – The Invitation of Motherhood, coming soon! Meanwhile, I’m catching up to speed on the blog and you’ll see a few posts this week (along with a new look) as I finally get them online. Enjoy! 

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Over the years, I’ve written a bit on the amazing preschool that my boys attend in Boulder, Colorado. It has been a beacon of wisdom and insight, and I’m eternally grateful. Rooted in the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism, the teachers act based on the premise that there is a basic wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness can be cultivated. Rowan, Braeden and Kienan’s first year classroom at age two was called the Tiger Classroom, the tiger referencing one of four “dignities” that Alaya Preschool founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent goodness. Each ‘dignity’ points to certain characteristics a practitioner develops in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. At Alaya Preschool, it is never considered too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion and wisdom – which the four dignities point to.

Just like the contemplative educational tradition encourages, I wanted to nurture reflection, practice slowing down, and make time for consideration.

Thanks to Alaya Preschool for the following ‘Principles of Contemplative Parenting.’ On a normal weekday morning at drop off, a stack of handouts highlighting these principles greeted interested parents. The following are ones that most resonated, accompanied by short reflections on how these weave into my family life.

Children need to experience how we work with strong emotions. This one gave me a sigh of relief. I often feel bad for expressing my own ‘big’ feelings. Yet I want to be authentic and honest about my own experiences and feelings. Yes! Children do need to see how we work with strong emotions. How do we navigate our own hurt feelings? What do we do when we’re angry? We are always modeling for our children – and any moment working with emotions is a potential teaching moment.

Children do want to be the cause for the effect… So, don’t attend to negative attention seeking. I’ve often worked with trying to focus my energy on the ‘positive.’ I don’t want to get into negative cycles – but I often find myself gravitating towards ‘negative attention seeking.’ How to shift that common pattern? I try to tend to what needs tending, while being aware of overly placing attention in one area.

Taking care of oneself is the best way to take care of the family. This one resonates as my growing edge. How is this possible? It is hard enough to complete even the basic tasks of a day: breakfasts, lunches, dinners. Laundry. Getting to work on time. Each of my children seems to clamor for my attention when I am with them. There are needs to be met – and there are difficult moments at school to process. It is all important – so how to prioritize? Currently, my self-care happens after the kids are in bed. I have yet to crack the nut of how to fully give myself what I need during the days without feeling I’m shortchanging my family. And – I see that if I am nourished and resourced, I always have so much more to give.

Use slogans! In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, slogans (or Lojong) are used as a mind training practice. By practicing with slogans in mind, I could better remember how I wanted to live into my family life. I took some time to create my own slogans for what I wanted to practice in my daily life. I posted them on my bathroom mirror.

Slow down. Take a breath. Take Care

Less ‘time outs,’ more ‘time ins.’ Take a break for self instead.

Did you do quiet time today?

“Time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children.” I never like giving “time outs.” And, there are times when space is needed, both for myself as well as between brothers. I’ve been trying on this idea that time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children. “I need some space!” I will often hear myself saying. In a heated moment, I try to move away and take a deep breath before responding. For my boys, I will often say that they need to take space after making a mistake (especially after making choices that hurt another brother). I am sure to invite them to come back when they are ready. I’ve also been trying the idea of a “time in.” I’ll encourage my son to stay with us all in the same room, but to sit out for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. We often “push the green button” to start over. The key is to interrupt the cycle and to infuse a sense of space.

Check posture & Speak slowly. I love these reminders. They are so tangible. When I speak slowly, I am most often speaking more mindfully and deliberately. When I’m frustrated or angry, my voice often raises and I speak faster. There is less time to consider what I actually want to say. There is more reactivity. So the pause to check posture realigns me with my intentions. If I commit to speaking slowly, I am usually speaking more kindly and thoughtfully.

Compassion: let your kindness be the guide. There are moments when I feel I’ve gone astray from my kindness. It might be the middle of the night and my three-year-old is up screaming because he can’t have the drink he wants in bed. Or it might be that one brother has hurt another and I’m angry beyond words. If I’m tired or overwhelmed on top of any of these things, it can be hard to respond as my best self. So remembering the simple word ‘compassion’ helps. It reminds me to see my children with softer eyes, and to look for the feelings behind their actions. It also reminds me to be gentle with myself.

Make quiet time part of the daily routine. Why is this so difficult on many days? I’m one who prioritizes simplicity and who values down time. And yet it can feel so elusive with three boys in tow! Even my best efforts for quietness are often thrwarted. The boys want to jump and wrestle. They want to play soccer and bike. They want to make physical contact with every object in the house. I can of course steer the energy towards quieter activities – but sometimes this is to no avail. So I model the quiet time myself. I commit to sitting on the couch and watching the birds at the bird feeder every day. I read a book and invite them to join. I practice saying no to the ceaseless activities – making sure that I’m noting that some stillness and quietness is good for me. Sometimes they join, other times they don’t. The key is for me to create this time and space.

A moment of Alaya Preschool field trip awe…Photo credit: Alaya Preschool 

Finding Silence Amidst the Sugar, the Screens and the Endless Rush

“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

One of the things I find myself pondering daily is how life with my three boys seems to be one continuous boundary against ‘treats,’ screens and rushing from one place to the next. Sugar has infiltrated every crevice of American life such that now we consume on average 130 pounds of sugar each year, or about 3,550 pounds of sugar in the average lifetime (in case you are wondering, that’s enough to fill an industrial sized dumpster). And kids generally eat more than adults – averaging 32 teaspoons of sugar a day (which happens to be three times the amount recommended by the American Heart Association). Don’t get me wrong – I do love sugar myself, even though I try to limit how much I consume. But in spite of my best efforts, sugar seems to be everywhere – and at kid eye level to boot.

The same goes for screens. As with sugar, I’ve decidedly aimed to set limits and hold boundaries. On average my boys watch less than an hour a week and yet they go through periods where they whine for it daily. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, and kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games. Even when trying to avoid conforming to these statistics, the screens can infiltrate the back drop of daily life, just like the sugar. At dinner out last week we counted six viewable screens. And there they were again at the coffee shop, and there they were again in the waiting room at the car wash. (The car wash waiting room also boasted Oreo cookies, candy cars and a wide variety of colorful gum drops in plastic bags). The opportunities for participation in screens and sugar are endless. Eat a little here, watch a little there. When I confront this daily reality coupled with the constant transition to and from school, often with the rush to get there on time and avoid a “tardy,” I want to crawl in a hole.

How did the dominant culture in America get to this place? A recent week of spring break at home with the kids reminded me of the slower rhythm possible in our mornings when we aren’t bound by the clock or getting in a car. Time could slow down a bit, more mindfulness prevailed over meal times and food choices. In general, there was a bit more silence. I liked it. Immensely.

Jean Arp says, “Soon silence will have passed into legend. We’ve turned our backs on silence. Day after day humans invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation… tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster the ego. Anxiety subsides. The inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.”

It is this gray vegetation that I’m trying to reckon with as I raise my children. Its the gray vegetation of too many treats and the glorification of screens. Its the gray vegetation of the cars in traffic on 28th street as I switch lanes in order to get Rowan to his 1st grade door at 8:20am sharp. Its the gray vegetation of a life with too few pauses and too much stimuli of all kinds. All of the sudden the experience of life can become the blur of scenery flying by on a road that looks the same everywhere you go because you aren’t close enough – or slow enough- to notice subtlety, or the quiet, simple beauty of the lone flower peeking out in spring under snow.

The absence of silence feels intimately connected to the influx of sugar and screens. The rushing, the noise of city life, the extreme sweet foods and the screens everywhere you go combine to form a cocktail of madness that swirls like a hum underneath it all. I choose to live in this swirl with as much slowness as possible, even while making a practice of setting boundaries. I say “there is no rush” over and over again to remind myself, and my boys, that we don’t have to live like a dog on a leash being flung around by an unknown owner (even though I am indeed worried about being late and daily wishing for a more flexible system). When I’m with my children the phone goes on airplane mode. In the car, the radio is always off. I practice taking deep breaths while driving and make a point to notice the details of the trees along the road. We play ‘I spy’ as a way to connect to our surroundings, even when in transit.

Perhaps the pining for more silence and stillness was what prompted my husband and I to begin sitting with the Quakers this past year. Those hours spent in absolute silence are often the most restorative and grounding in a week. Young children are welcome to join for the first 15 minutes of silence, and even though mine have yet to top 8 minutes, I know that this gesture of inviting them into a world of stillness is a rare gift. So I focus on what gifts I can give as a parent – the gift of quality time, full, engaged presence, silence as the backdrop as often as possible, and the freedom of no agenda most afternoons after school and work.

Prioritizing simplicity and silence feels like the antidote to a culture gone nuts. I am constantly tracking how I can integrate more time outside, more time getting lost in the small details of nature, more art and movement, more quality time with friends and less running around on the fly with granola bars gobbled in the back seat. I am doing more contemplating before saying YES to anything – and trying to be more mindful of how the grams of sugar pile up. Perhaps most importantly, I’m trying to remember that I do have agency in how I live my life and how I raise my children. Even though I feel pulled into a very fast stream, I can still swim like a turtle – carrying a home where there is always the possibility of finding stillness and silence in a world full of noise.

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*Note to readers: It has been awhile since I’ve posted – but the things I want to write on swim in my mind every day. This past year I’ve focused my bits of spare time into writing a book based on the themes of this blog. I’m now focusing my still scant spare time on finding a publisher for said book. (!) Thank you for bearing with the silence and the long stretches! – Deborah

 

Windhorse

Once again, I am blessed to have Rowan attending a school that offers inspiration and wisdom on my own path. His kindergarten teachers post a weekly slogan next to the sign in sheet where we parents sign our children in and out of the school day. This week: a slogan for the new year on ‘Windhorse’ – and a reminder to me to ring in this new year with a deepened commitment to upliftedness  in the midst of the often myopic details of parenting and homemaking…

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Tuning In, Staying True to the Ordinary

It’s no surprise we fail to tune into our children’s essence. How can we listen to them, when so many of us barely listen to ourselves? How can we feel their spirit and hear the beat of their heart if we can’t do this in our own life? When we as parents have lost our inner compass, is it any wonder so many children grow up directionless, disconnected, and discouraged? By losing contact with our inner world, we cripple our ability to parent from our essential being in the way conscious parenting requires…

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When we deny our children’s ordinariness, we teach them to be enthralled only by exaggerations of life. They come to believe that only the grand and the fabulous are to be noticed and applauded, and hence constantly pursue “bigger” and “better.”

In contrast, when our children learn to value the ordinary, they learn to inhabit life itself. They appreciate their body, their mind, the pleasure of sharing a smile, and the privilege of relating to others. It all starts with what we as parents teach them to appreciate.

– From: The Conscious Parent, Shefali Tsabary

Negativity Simply Becomes Food

“Originally there were conceptual ideas and then they were cut through altogether so that you no longer regarded light and dark as light and dark. It becomes the non-dualistic state. Then negativity simply becomes food, pure strength. You no longer relate to negativity as being good or bad, but you continually use the energy which comes out of it as a source of life so that you are never really defeated in a situation. Crazy wisdom cannot be defeated. If someone attacks or someone praises, crazy wisdom will feed on either equally.”

-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Myth of Freedom

My oldest son is teaching me about working with ‘negativity.’ He’s also teaching me about my own expression of anger in response. We often talk about how in our family “our love includes everything,” even the frustration and mutual mistakes. And, “mistakes” have been abounding. The stress of multiple transitions has affected each of us and wires are frayed all around. My son pushes the boundaries of my capacity to “positively parent” with patience and the face of love which feels most comfortable. I keep hearing the voice of my yoga teacher: “Real Hatha Yoga begins at the point of failure.” A mother recently said to me after she’d been yelling at her daughter: “Motherhood is a humbling series of failures.” I concur.

The question for me becomes: What do you do when you are standing at this humbling doorway of failure and mistake? How do you dance with negativity?

Chogyam Trungpa has an answer for me. “You must not make an impulsive move into any situation. Let the situation come, then look at it, chew it properly, digest it, sit on it….Frivolousness means reacting according to reflex. You throw something and when it bounces back you react. Spontaneity is when you throw something and watch it and work with the energy when it bounces back at you. Once you are emotionally worked up, then too much anxiety is put into your action. But when you are spontaneous, there is less anxiety and you just deal with situations as they are. You do not simply react, but you work with the quality and structure of the reaction. You feel the texture of the situation rather than just acting impulsively.”

Let’s break down what this looks like. My son throws his toothbrush. He does it again. He then pushes his brother. He now throws the toothpaste along with the toothbrush. (Mix in a bit of yelling and writhing on the floor even though we are 10 minutes late for school). “Are you trying to make me mad?” “Yes, mama.” And then, I do get mad, toss the equanimity out the door and resort to acting like a four-year old myself, raised voice, slammed door and all. Note: This IS reacting according to an agitated reflex. Note: This is NOT reacting with spontaneity. Note: This IS impulsive and I AM emotionally worked up. Note: Anxiety has definitely entered the picture. Note: Something along these lines happens daily right now. As parents, what do we do when we are consistently pushed to the edge of what feels tolerable in terms of ‘negative’ behavior? How to work with it? What to do? Where is my love when I fly off the handle? What do you do when it just feels like a continual, grueling mess?

Then, I remember what Dogen Zenji says: “Enlightenment is intimacy with everything.” I can hold all of this: the letting myself and my family down, the experience of failing, the loss of control, the dualistic mind that self-judges, the wrestling with shadows, the impatient mother in me who doesn’t want to deal with four-year old antics. And, as Trungpa points to: I can practice an integration of “negatives.” I don’t have to fall into labeling anything (including my own actions) as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, this whole process of working with ‘negativity’ can be used as food for my dance in life, energy for my continued unfolding and relationship with what is. As in some Tibetan Buddhist images, I can use the ‘negativities’ – the painted demons or a crown of skulls – as ornaments of my own existence of grappling. I can remember that all feelings are allowed, and all actions can be danced with. I can remember to still set limits, while welcoming the full spectrum of emotions (including my own). Most importantly, I can stay close and connected with my child when ‘negative’ behavior is flourishing. I can do this because I have done the work of staying intimate with my own negativities. Not avoiding. Not ignoring. Not glossing over. Not pushing away. I can be angry, too. And still, I can work to restore calm, not from a place of this being ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but from a place of spontaneous dance through whatever is being tossed at me in these crazy moments of parenting young kids.

Where You Place Your Attention Becomes Your Experience…

“When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“Humans love drama. We revel in the excitement of risk and conflict, competition and difficulty. We love to talk about what’s wrong. A time has arrived in human history where we must find that new trajectory that allows us to raise our children in ways that make happiness, confidence, inner peace, cooperation and greatness the exciting measure of our priorities…where these qualities hold more promise and are far more enticing than drama, conflict, competition and difficulty.” – Howard Glasser

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My practice of Hatha Yoga gifted me with the following insight: where you place your attention becomes your experience. My teacher would say it again and again, particularly in ‘challenging’ yoga asanas where most of us choose to perseverate on burning muscles, a feeling of fatigue, the desire to ‘get out’ or move positions (have you noticed how many times someone needs to go to the restroom during the most difficult moments in a practice?). Where you place your attention becomes your experience. Slowly over time I was able to notice all the beautiful things happening, even when I was uncomfortable or tired or about to lose my balance (or fall over for that matter while meeting my physical limits). Instead of focusing on the points of what might be labeled as ‘failure’ I practiced loving the moment: not ignoring the difficulty, but choosing to place my attention on the dimensions of my experience rooted in enjoyment rather than avoidance, frustration or ‘pain.’ My teacher always said “FEEL YOUR EARLOBE OR YOUR PINKY TOE!” – and it was always true. My earlobe or pinky toe were almost always perfectly blissful, quietly enjoying the ride…

I generally pride myself as being someone who takes the spiritual practice of yoga ‘off the mat and into life’ so to speak – which is why I was pleasantly astonished when I encountered a blind spot in my parenting: Where you place your attention becomes your experience, even with your children. For the better part of that past 18  months I have been yanking my attention to all the troubles between my two young boys: the grabbing of toys, the yelling in faces, the too rough wrestling matches, the whining and crying and mitigation of conflicts. I’ve been exhausted. I’ve been strung out. My nervous system has been taxed. I’ve been at a loss, arms thrown up in the air. How to engender peace? How to encourage kindness? Oh, and how to enjoy parenting? How to just maintain a baseline of sanity???

Howard Glasser’s All Children Flourishing fell into my life and like a lightbulb I realized I was digging my own hole into insanity and frustration by (low and behold) placing my attention on negativity in stead of positivity. How on earth could I have missed something so obvious? By placing my attention on the ‘negative’ behaviors in my household over and over again (and coming to expect these behaviors as standard fare) I was not only deepening my own experience of helplessness, sorrow and despair, but also fostering more negativity! As I read the book, I realized that the spiritual teaching of where you place your attention becomes your experience holds true (of course!) in a family system of behaviors, habits and energy exchanges as well.

Glasser’s insight on working with children (called the Nurtured Heart Approach) is straightforward: focus on positivity. It is about the “relentless pursuit and celebration of positivity” where we as parents can purposefully nurture successes and greatness. That is: place our attention over and over again on what our children are doing kindly, generously, carefully, bravely, patiently, thoughtfully and responsibly. Switching my perspective to place my attention over and over again on the smooth moments in the day, the kindness, the respect and the mindfulness is transforming my experience. Just like on the yoga mat: I can choose to focus on what can be identified as ‘problems’ or difficulty, or I can focus on what is naturally beautiful, life-giving, full of love, free of drama. These qualities of experience are ever-present, it is just that the gravitation to drama lures us, often unaware. The magnetism to conflict can be powerful. So how to transform? How to practice peace in my microcosm of life here at home?

First, switch the attention: soften the gaze in order to see the many quiet moments of sibling bonding, the gestures of kindness, the slow unfolding of cooperation and sharing, the shared giggle, the mischievous shared glances of solidarity while playing…And then: put energy there! Notice it outwardly! Help these moments grow by watering the seeds of kindness. The switch in perspective has made all the difference in my mental health – while also (hopefully) engendering more inner wealth and confidence in my children. Glasser’s practice involves not getting drawn into giving our children greater responses or more animation for ‘negative’ behaviors. It is about not rewarding ‘problems’ with our energy, response or relationship. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” When our own mindfulness practice and attention practice can shower positivity, positive reinforcement and loving words of encouragement on our children, we can play a role in fostering peace (inner and outer). It is a deep seeing, a looking beyond surface drama to the qualities of human greatness that reside in each heart. And, it takes great effort to live from this place. It takes great practice to choose to pay attention to the tender hearts of children (and all of us!) – the hurts that live behind and under the lashing out, the mindlessness, the fighting, the pettiness. 

The shift in attention has not made ‘problems’ or conflict go away. But it has softened my experience and helped me to see my oldest son with more tender, patient eyes. It has allowed me to live in a realm of more balance, where I can reside in greater appreciation for all the ‘basic goodness‘ taking root. Just like in a challenging yoga asana, this moment in life too presents all sides. There is pain, there is frustration, there is the need for balance and inner strength. There are physical and emotional limits confronted. There is connection. There is kindness. Then there is surrendering into what is arising, without discrimination or judgement. There is the unfolding practice of choosing to focus on Love – and choosing to see the background of basic goodness as the ground from which all things emerge.

Planting the Seeds of Awe

Awe: A feeling of reverential respect; an emotion inspired by the sacred or sublime.

My mother did everything she could to inspire an experience of awe and wonder in my brother and I. Every family vacation oriented around an awe-inspiring place or event. There was the trip to see the ancient burial grounds of Native Peoples in the Midwest. There was the August vacation one year planned around a meteor shower, where mom went to great pains to have us stay near a lake without city lights so our family could sit together for a late night meteor shower viewing, shooting stars reflected in the water. There was the iconic “Trip West” with camping at the foot of the Grand Tetons. There was Yosemite. Yellowstone. The Badlands. There was also the day-to-day witnessing of her passion for learning: ancient history, archaeology, astronomy. There was even a rare month spent in Egypt when I was 8 years old, gliding down the Nile, climbing in the dark tunnels inside the pyramids, mom assisting me with taking my own photos and drawing my own artistic renditions of the sites we were seeing. (How lucky am I!?)

Ultimately, my mother gave me one of the greatest gifts: planting the seeds for an experience of awe and wonder, laying the groundwork for an ongoing experience of holiness and divinity. She showed me from an early age how to be captivated. She showed me how to relate to life beyond myself: the past, the heavens, the stars and planets. I could begin to feel my place in an order of things beyond myself that was beyond time and space. I knew Life was bigger than me. These were the moments that truly pointed me in the direction of being in conversation with the Divine.

The capacity to experience awe and wonder strikes me as an absolutely essential capacity to cultivate (both in myself as well as in my family life). To live from a place of awe or wonder keeps me rooted in openness to surprise and mystery, the unexpected twists of a day, the slow amble of an ant, the crushing beauty of a rock…Without remembering awe, I’m less reverential, less attuned to beauty, and generally more lacklustre in my orientation to a day. Parenting especially seems to have ushered me into many moments of structured predictability, where my attention can get stuck in an overwhelming sense of responsibility and exhaustion. Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote that his experience of God or the Divine was one grounded in “silence in the face of being.” Do we foster such moments throughout the day, both by ourselves as well as with our children? In silence, stillness and slowness there are perhaps more opportunities for awe and wonder to arise in their most primitive forms. No hype, no ‘excitement:’ just pure, unadulterated silent observing. As parents we can gently lay the groundwork for such moments – perhaps setting forth with a vision of possibility and then letting go when our children aren’t following suit. Nothing forced, nothing pressed: only trusting that over time a culmination of shared moments and experiences may reveal this nugget of sweet, shared enjoyment of life – with a sense of the sacred and sublime forming the background, full of light…

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A Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto

 “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.” – Brene Brown

It isn’t often I am struck by parenting ‘advice.’ My husband sent the below parenting manifesto along today as we grapple with how to parent our children in ways that foster being real as well as being kind. Rather than only nagging our children with the edict “that’s not nice” we’ve been reflecting about the importance of honoring feelings of anger and jealousy that may live beneath the unkind actions or words. We’ve been reckoning with anger ourselves. One morning when my fuse snapped and I yelled that I was feeling angry at my son, I was being hard on myself and feeling like I was not parenting well because I hadn’t responded with patience and kindness as my primary operating principles. It was a moment when Rowan had pushed my patience to the edge and I felt he’d gone too far. I expected my husband, who witnessed my outburst of anger, to agree that I had let Rowan down, that I had not acted mindfully. He instead said, “at least our son sees that it is okay to feel angry. At least he sees what is real for you. He knows the very real effect of his actions. You didn’t sugar coat anything. You were authentic with your feelings. You showed him too that moms also need space and a break.” (After my blow up I promptly said “Mama needs a break” and went into the bathroom and locked the door).

More than anything the incident reminded me that I’m not perfect, but that “perfect” is also not perfect. Nothing is perfect. Perhaps a more useful way to look at any difficult situation with my family is whether I acted authentically. This doesn’t mean letting myself throw tantrums just because I feel like it, but it does mean owning my anger, exhaustion and intense frustration when it arises. It means not turning away or glossing over the complex emotions that surface in any given day raising two young boys. It means modeling accountability by acknowledging what I could have done differently and apologizing if feelings were hurt. It means being present to what is – and truly seeing myself as well as my family through the eyes of authenticity, returning to appreciation and gratitude as soon as I am able. As Brene Brown says below in her Parenting Manifesto, “I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you…”

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The Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto

Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions–the lessons on love are in how I treat you and how I treat myself.

I want you to engage with the world from a place of worthiness. You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections.

We will practice courage in our family by showing up, letting ourselves be seen, and honoring vulnerability. We will share our stories of struggle and strength. There will always be room in our home for both.

We will teach you compassion by practicing compassion with ourselves first; then with each other. We will set and respect boundaries; we will honor hard work, hope, and perseverance. Rest and play will be family values, as well as family practices.

You will learn accountability and respect by watching me make mistakes and make amends, and by watching how I ask for what I need and talk about how I feel.

I want you to know joy, so together we will practice gratitude.

I want you to feel joy, so together we will learn how to be vulnerable.

When uncertainty and scarcity visit, you will be able to draw from the spirit that is a part of our everyday life.

Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.

We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here.

As you begin your Wholehearted journey, the greatest gift that I can give to you is to live and love with my whole heart and to dare greatly.

I will not teach or love or show you anything perfectly, but I will let you see me, and I will always hold sacred the gift of seeing you. Truly, deeply, seeing you.

– Brene Brown

Principles of Practice

After writing the post on Lessons from a Buddhist Preschool, I’ve been thinking about how the intention, flow and order of Rowan’s school days could also apply to a (my) personal spiritual practice. Last Fall his teachers handed out a sheet of paper with the words Principles of Practice at the top, Adopted from the Vidya School Aims as a sub-header (vidya meaning knowledge/clarity/brightness). I tucked the piece of paper in my calendar and keep shuffling into it while at work. Finally, I unfolded it and took a closer look. Yes, indeed. Principles of Practice at Rowan’s school can also be Principles of Practice for any of us wishing to imbue our lives with practice, both in how we parent as well as in the broader context of our lives. Below are excerpts from the list (in italics) and some musings to pair.

Genuine Relationships. It is beyond concept, technique, method or strategy. Action arises out of the spontaneous indeterminate living quality of people themselves.

Kindness. A constant recognition and reminder of Basic Goodness, the sudden cruelty of impulse does not solidify.

No Problem Children. There are children with very special needs, but the atmosphere of “problem” with its attendant fixations is not introduced.

Oh how I love this one. “The atmosphere of “problem” with its attendant fixations is not introduced.” What if we too lived like this? Rather than working to ‘fix’ something we can in stead be available to Grace, and offer our unwavering compassionate presence in the face of whatever is arising, without judgment (this applies to our own experience, too).

Habitual Vision of Greatness. A reference to quality, excellence, greatness and nobility infuses the environment and content of the curriculum.

Again, what if we lived each day like this? Substitute ‘work’ for curriculum. “A reference to quality, excellence, greatness and nobility infuses the environment and content of our work.” I’m reminded of what a teacher once said about caring for another human being:
“There is nothing more regal.” Can we integrate a habitual vision of greatness into the ‘ordinary’ moments of work and parenthood?

Cultivation of Inquisitiveness. Students are constantly challenged to inquiry, wonder, and freshness of mind.

This reminds me to be ever-awake and inquisitive, even in my adult form. Particularly with the ongoing structure of habits, routines and seemingly never-ending responsibilities, we can practice a freshness of mind…

Accommodation of Mistakes. Great value is placed on mistakes as the door to understanding.

How true, particularly with the learning curve of parenthood. Every time we meet our own limitations and see a different course of action than what we may have taken, we can use these moments as teaching moments. No guilt. No dwelling. Just honest acknowledgement of mistake and deepened commitment to integrity and patience moving forward…

Discipline of Body, Speech and Mind. Order, attention to detail, doing things thoroughly and fully in all activities – dress, eating, greetings, cleaning up, etc., are considered essential to the overall environment.

Can our homes and play spaces reflect this order too?

No Blame. By perceiving situations as they are without attaching blame, negativity becomes workable.

Not Afraid of Sharp Edges. All the negativity and intelligence of the child is acknowledged squarely and viewed as relevant.

Celebration. Take delight in the simple appreciation of each other and the world. Discipline and delight go hand in hand.

Basic Goodness is the Fundamental Reference Point. Because, in every situation, the reminder of Basic Goodness is available, trust in oneself and humor in the environment propel seemingly stuck situations forward.

Sacred World. Because the world is viewed as sacred, every object and person has its own dignity. Things have their own power, quality and place. This is the art of everyday life.